Photos

Panoramic Group Photos: The Selfies of the Early 20th Century

How the introduction of new technology led the entire country to take basically the same photograph.

What is it about the group panoramic photo, the "widest of wide screens, a time-lapse that occurs in a single frame," that is, as Luc Sante writes, so "strange and compelling?" The view that the panorama provides, sometimes encompassing a full 360 degrees, is at once fact and fiction: you can’t possibly see that much at once, but look! There we are, every one of us, recorded for posterity. We were there, together.

The first panoramic photos made in the United States were chiefly city-scapes of places like Duluth, Nome, and San Francisco, created to attract developers with their big-view, one-shot wonder. But at the turn of the 20th century, with the introduction of flexible film, panoramic cameras with rotating tripods, and the popularization of the photo postcard, large gatherings of people became the major subject, "accounting for as much as 90 percent of the genre," notes Sante in the introduction to Josh Sapan’s new book, The Big Picture: America in Panorama, out this month.

Sapan, the CEO of Rainbow Media, which owns AMC, IFC, and the Sundance Channel, is a photo enthusiast who began collecting vintage panoramas of people some 35 years ago, purchased from flea markets and antique stores he wandered through. He chooses nearly 100 images here, pairing 24 of them with color commentary by contributors including Yogi Berra, Dick Cavett, Mark Halperin, Christie Hefner, Anna Quindlen, and Martha Stewart.

It's an intriguing lens with which to observe the group-think of the early 20th century, and the effects of burgeoning technology on identity (both individual and in a crowd) in a time before Facebook and Instagram. As Sapan writes, the curious collision of these groups coalesced to offer a meaningful look at the way Americans had begun to think about themselves and the shared experience:

By the time I had fifty displayed, they started to sketch anecdotal insight into America from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. Even in its random assembly, the collection captured many social and political threads that were defining the country, from the passion for cars evident at the 1915 convention of the Good Roads Association to the press for racial equality as expressed at the 1932 NAACP conference and the growing middle class’s increasing opportunities for leisure activity, on display at early Miss America pageants.

Most of the images here have never been published. They signal social standing, wealth, and power, as in this 1906 photo of the 11th annual dinner of the Erie Railroad Association at New York's Hotel Savoy:

They are proud documents of international innovation and feats of engineering, as in this image of the Japanese concession for the 1915 World's Fair in San Francisco:

They are effusive records of patriotism at the time America entered into WWI, as seen in this 1918 "Human Liberty Bell":

And they were a way for folks to express strength in their group identity, as in these portraits, of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1919:

The NAACP, on their pilgrimage to Harpers Ferry in 1932:

Which is especially striking when juxtaposed against this image from the Ku Klux Klan Convention, held in Roanoke, Virginia, a year earlier.

The photo as spectacle is obvious in this bathing suit parade at Seal Beach, California, in 1918:

And in this sprawling photo of Coney Island, the world’s playground, a magical place for New Yorkers to seen and be seen. Even back in 1902.

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