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A question of format..the panorama..

Multiple Narratives 101

Kia ora tatou:

Of late I have begun to think about format and its significance again. One format which has always fascinated me is the panorama and its practice. It is a topic I discuss at the Winterlight Workshops, one which is, of course, devoted to the question of landscape photography. Contrary to popular opinion, there is madness in my method, and method in my madness.

Time is a dressmaker specializing in alterations.

-Faith Baldwin

Time is the longest distance between two places.

-Tennessee Williams

The practice of landscape photography cannot be studied without looking at some point at the place of the panorama. About eight months ago I began to be more interested in the panorama. It came about because of my relentless search to find a way to make incredibly detailed photographs without mortgaging my soul to the Prince of Darkness and buying a 65 Megapixel medium format back. I came very close to writing a contract in blood until I began to look at what could be achieved by stitching. I blame Derek Golding. Half an hour with him convinced me that megapixel images were within range without selling my soul, without having to follow Robert Johnson down to the crossroads. Anyway, I cannot play guitar. Having watched what could be achieved by shooting multiple images and stitching, I realised that it was possible to approach ultra realism in another way. It was possible to get there not by purchasing the mother of all cameras, but by using a software solution. So I lashed out and purchased Autopano Pro, and the experimenting has begun.

As I said, it is a topic I have wandered round the nearly 6 years, exploring the significance of the panorama as a way of seeing, as a way of documenting, and, more especially, as a format for a lengthened narrative. Until I realised how easy it was to shoot the panorama using a software solution, I held out, waiting for some form of device which would enable me to document it as a single image. In doing so I fell prey to the beginner’s trap which will ensnare anybody considering the panorama as a way of working. You see, in order to make panoramas which do more than simply represent a very broad view, you need to put a lot of time and thought into just how they manipulate the picture space, the passage of time and viewer response.

When I began to think about what I might say, I realised I had posted on the same topic in early 2006. This article then is a rework of the one I wrote back then (no, it is not there any longer) with my current thinking added in.

You may be interested to know that the panorama is one of the oldest formats in photography. It has been popular since photography’s earliest days-since 1843 in fact, when Joseph Puchberger of Retz, Austria, patented a hand crank driven swing lens Panoramic camera that used Daguerreotype plates 19 to 24 inches long. Josef Sudek used it extensively in a series he did in Prague. Josef Koudelka worked with it some years ago. The list goes on. So why is it still popular? Here is my theory.

Think about the way we look the world around us. Assuming we are standing upright, it is easier to look from side to side. Our spine is designed to facilitate horizontal articulation. Looking up and down requires greater effort. Maybe our forbears were more worried about the sabre-tooth tiger lurking in the grass than the one about to drop out of a tree…

Looking laterally involves no change in perception of scale. Everything maintains its proportions. The only scale change involves near and far, and these are a function of distance. Perspective, a Renaissance invention in Western Art, seems quite natural. Compare this with the act of looking up and down. If we stand in one of those concrete canyons in a city and look up at the skyscrapers, we can get quite dizzy. We lose contact with the ground and the horizon, a vital point of visual self-reference. The buildings stretch up and seem to get thinner at the top. This is called keystoning. The ancient Greeks were well aware of this and made the columns on their temples a little wider at the top to compensate for this visual effect. While the perspective that occurs is the vertical equivalent of what happens with near/far, somehow it seems less…ordinary.
Again if we look down at our bodies, a real foreshortening effect occurs. Observation of our feet (assuming we can see them) occurs on the periphery of our vision. Looking down means looking around/past our nose. Looking up brings our eyebrows into the periphery. Note that our eyebrows project more into our vision than our cheeks. This might suggest that we are more naturally-evolved to perceive in horizontal rather than vertical planes. Lateral observation on the other hand means much less clutter on the edge of our vision.

And there is other historical evidence to support the durability of this way of seeing. The ancient Romans and Greeks made friezes, horizontal images that stretched for meters. Curiously enough, these involved extended stories that unravelled as a viewer moved along them. In a way these were the original forbears of the movie. The viewer moved with the story. In fact one of the very first westerns shot was made by putting the horse on a carousel, so that the background moved behind the rider. Thus the story unfolded, a bit like a (then) hi-tech frieze. However, unlike the frieze, the viewer remains static. Likewise with the panorama.
Note that friezes tend to unfold laterally, as does text. In the East there seem to be a large number of 2D artworks that unfold vertically. Curious then that eastern calligraphy moves vertically. Which raises the question of why Chinese writing is all about up and down.
Film on the other hand is like a kind of moving frieze over a kilometer long. What has film got to do with the panorama, you ask? Bear with me.
Because we only see one frame at a time, because it passes through the projector gate one frame at a time, we get the illusion of a single image. We all know that in reality film is a series of still images, each one different from the one before. As it moves past the gate, things appear to change, and thus a story unfolds. We are happy to go along with the illusion. The key element here is time.
The still photographer deals with fractions of a second. The filmmaker deals with multiples of this. A frieze (sic: panorama) sits somewhere in the middle of this, reflecting the passage of time.

I would suggest that the panorama is the closest a still photographer can get to the philosophy behind the moving image without reaching for a camcorder.
Here is why.
All photography is about storytelling. Whatever and whenever we photograph, we are telling stories. It is all about narrative. It may be as simple as a record of a time or place or person. It can be as complicated as telling a story about human life and expectations. We attempt to condense our story into a single moment in time, to abstract reality using an agreed codification. The still image uses a given format (6×6, 35mm, 8X10) and thus defines the nature of that codification. As an example, 8×10 encourages a considerable degree of formalism. You just can’t work spontaneously with one. 35mm, on the other hand, is a format that begs to be used in a spontaneous way. Look at Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work and you will see what I mean.
The panorama, with its enlarged picture space, encourages the exploration of time and telling a story with a longer timeline. The picture space is so expansive that you need to inject a narrative into it to make full use of its potential.
However, not only does it encourage the exploration of time and space, but it also physically involves the viewer in an extended timeframe. If we look at a large panorama, one which is perhaps 1- 2 m long, and we are European (this is important), then we will tend to begin at the left-hand end of the photograph and look rightwards until we reach the right hand  end. If it is large enough and we are close enough, then we will tend to begin at the left-hand end and move until we reached the other end of the image. If we are close enough, then almost certainly by the time we reach the right-hand end of the image, we will be ready to return to the other end and begin again. In any event, time has passed, whether it be a few seconds or a few minutes. Thus the narrative has involved us for much longer than a single frame which can be absorbed in a single glance. We have created and been involved in a space for an extended narrative.

Many of the panoramas which I see are little more than single images which have been cropped. What this tells me is that the author is still thinking in terms of a single simultaneous narrative, where everything occurs contiguously rather than consecutively. In doing so that that photographer makes it plain that they have little understanding of what is possible with the panorama. They make it plain that the concept of a consecutive narrative or the chronological narrative within a single picture space is something they have yet to consider. There are some simply ghastly examples of this, and there are a number of photographers who are making handsome livings from their ignorance. Fortunately they have willing audiences and customers who are equally ignorant.

If we are to apply the panorama in a way which is intelligent, then we have to acknowledge the passage of time, and acknowledge multiple narratives occurring both consecutively and contiguously. The overall scene might be singular but within it there may well be a variety of connected or disconnected events taking place. The human brain of course attempts to create order by joining dots wherever it can, and so will tend to be frustrated if there are elements which appeared discordant or disconnected. So what? If we so choose, then as artists we can draw attention to a seemingly random series of events, to events which appear disconnected and are yet intertwined. Therein lies the challenge and the joy of making a panorama.

I made the image for this post a couple of weekends ago while taking a test drive of the new Sony NEX-5. I had little time to have a thorough play with the equipment, but I was very taken with the idea of being able to create spontaneous panoramas. Until now the panorama could be done in one of two ways: I could either use a camera with a letterbox format, for example a Noblex, or I could use stitching technology. The former is really little more than a carefully-cropped single image picture space, while the latter is a series of disconnected events, more akin to film than to the still photograph. The Sony however, stitches on-the-fly and, as a consequence, is recording a more extended time frame than a single fraction-of-a-second still.

Here is how I use it:

I identify the event taking place, analyse the multiplicity of narratives occurring within a picture space, then choose the left-hand side (where the narrative will begin) and the right-hand side (where the narrative will conclude). While I am doing this, the narrative is of course both changing and unfolding. Thus, the point at which I enter the tableau dictates which part of the play I will document. In order to do this, I need to have some sense of what I want to convey, of what I am observing and my response to it. I suppose I could liken myself to a member of the audience at a play, where I decide at which point I will enter the theatre and take my seat. Because the narrative is seamless and continuous I do not have the option to take my place before the curtain rises. I am cursed (or blessed, depending upon my point of view) to enter at some point within the narrative, rather than being able to take my place before the show begins. In doing so, and my attempts to document all or part of the narrative (all is, of course, not an option), I will make a statement, however unwitting, about the nature of place and time, of the difference between observer and participant.

But back to the photograph in hand.

With little time available to me, I decided to take the camera into my favourite DVD store, Alice in Videoland in Christchurch. It has always been a somewhat surreal place to me, ever since its early days in Hereford St. It is series of partitioned spaces, a kind of Cabinet of Infinite Curiosities, where people move in time to their own choreographed scripts. It is possible to stand in one place, to take a single point perspective and yet observe multiple narratives unfolding within a single framework (the video store).

It was relatively simple. It was a case of selecting a space where I could not observe multiple storylines, disperate yet connected, unfolding before me. It was a relatively simple process: set the left-hand side (beginning) and decide where I wanted the narrative to finish (right-hand side/ending). Then all I had to do was pan the camera through the scene. Simple enough you say. However time passed between pressing the shutter on the left-hand side of the narrative and closing it on the right-hand side. Perhaps a few seconds passed, but in that time the narrative changed. As a consequence, the right-hand side of the picture occurred at a time different to the left-hand side. The event on the right-hand side is consequent to that on the left-hand side rather than contiguous, and as a consequence, the narrative has evolved. Whether I wanted it to or not.

Time has passed.

Short of using some sort of Flash Gordon Time-Stasis-Ray, or being Mr. Freeze, there is no real way to freeze time unless I envelope the entire picture space in a single moment and with a comprehensive view-the still image.

And why would I want to do that anyway?

Eugene Martone: My attitude? What the hell’s the matter with MY attitude, I have a great attitude!
Willie Brown: You got your mind made up about how everything works. How you gonna learn anything new when you KNOW everything already?
[picks up Eugene's old, scratched acoustic guitar] Willie Brown: Look at this old guitar here you been squeakin’ on. I bet you saw this thing in a music store and bought it just because you thought it was beat up! Well you got it all wrong. Muddy Waters invented electricity.

-Crossroads ( Ralph Macchio, Joe Seneca)

6 Responses

  1. Graham says:

    Hi Tony, motorised pano head as well? looking forward to hearing about the results.
    Am really enjoying LR3.

  2. Tony Bridge says:

    Curiously, Graham, I shoot it handheld, but use manual exposure and manual focus… advice from Derek…

  3. BB says:

    I like this article Tony – and it means that even with a small “P&S” one can get a large pano – but probably not in the gigapixel range!!! But with one’s bigger camera and upgraded computer and software even joining the images after their creation will be easier now

  4. Tony Bridge says:

    Well, BB, gigapixel images with a PHD are possible!
    See here:
    http://gigapansystems.com/the-gigapan-system/system-page.html

  5. BB says:

    Wow – it’s amazing what hardware will be created to do anything!

  6. Annemarie says:

    Thanks, what a great way to think about Panos.

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