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Revisiting Rights-Free: Panoramic Photographs

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Panoramic photographs from the Prints & Photographs Division collections can show us a lot about the interests and activities of Americans at the turn of the twentieth century and the decades that followed, while offering a more expansive view of a scene than a more standard size photograph could provide. Subjects of panoramic photographs in the Prints & Photographs Division’s collections are wide ranging, from majestic views of American landscapes and cities to wars and natural disasters, from scenes of fairs and expositions to portraits of groups as diverse as unions, military units, and Sunday School classes.

Panorama of Little Yosemite from Liberty Cap.
Panorama of Little Yosemite from Liberty Cap. Photo by Pillsbury Photo Company, 1906.
NWTUL (National Women’s Trade Union) Convention, N.Y.C., 1924. Group portrait.
NWTUL (National Women’s Trade Union League) Convention, N.Y.C., 1924. Photo by Charles F. Allen.

One early panoramic photograph in the collection, showing a view of San Francisco from Rincon Hill, was made from five daguerreotype plates made in 1851 that were placed side-by-side to create a wider view. Although the daguerreotypes apparently did not survive, the resulting copy photograph, shown below, was submitted to the Library of Congress in 1910 as part of the copyright registration process.

San Francisco, 1851, from Rincon Hill. Martin Behrman, copyright claimant, 1910.
San Francisco, 1851, from Rincon Hill. Martin Behrman, copyright claimant, 1910.

The methods for producing panoramic photographs evolved over time, and the collection includes some early examples printed from multiple wet-plate glass negatives during the Civil War period, such as the view of Nashville from Fort Negley below.

Nashville, Tenn., from Fort Negley looking northeast. Photo by George N. Barnard, 1864.
Nashville, Tenn., from Fort Negley looking northeast. Photo by George N. Barnard, 1864.

Others were made from specially designed cameras that rotated the lens without moving the film, or those that rotated both the camera and the film, in order to achieve a virtually seamless panoramic view. These swing-lens and 360-degree rotation cameras were available starting in the late 19th century, and produced images like the action-packed one made from a Cirkut camera below. The catalog record for this photograph indicates that the image was doctored, with the planes added from other negatives before it was printed.

Panoramic view of 1st Nat'l Aviation Meet, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, June 13-18, 1910, showing several biplanes in the air.
1st Nat’l Aviation Meet, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, June 13-18, 1910. Photo by Charles F. Bretzman, 1910.

With only a handful of exceptions, the digitized panoramic photographs in the collection are free to use. The vast majority, over 4,200, have rights advisories of “no known restrictions,” so they are freely viewable and downloadable from anywhere with internet access.

We hope you’ll take the opportunity to explore more panoramic photographs on your own.

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Comments (4)

  1. Very informative – and such a nice array of examples! I think you all have included one of my favorite panoramic photographs in previous blog posts, but I can’t resist mentioning it, mostly because of the young (seated) participant, who may not be enjoying the photographic endeavor very much:

    • Thanks so much for sharing! That photo, and that young person, are indeed very much worth our attention!

  2. Melissa – I enjoyed your article very much. Really illuminating. Thank you.

    I have been into panos (mainly via Photoshop) for many years.

    Some of your panos were made via the juxtaposition of sheets of film or glass plates. My question is – have the films or glass plates been digitized at the Library (or elsewhere, for that matter)? If so, how might I obtain the scans?

    Thanks very much for your attention.

    • Walt — thanks for your kind comment and good question. I do not have a ready answer, so I have converted your question into a ticket in our Ask a Librarian system. You will get a response soon, after we have had a chance to do some investigating.

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