Sunday, April 6, 2008


During my last visit a few weeks ago to the Portland Art Museum I found myself captivated by this Eugene Goldbeck photograph. Perhaps it had been there before and I'd never noticed, or maybe it had been freshly circulated out of storage. In any case it held my attention for quite a while. There are 21,765 servicemen in the picture, each looking directly at the camera, and each face clearly visible. Not only were the logistics of such a theatrical shot unfathomable to me but the photo itself was very finely made, with beautiful tonality and clarity. I'd never heard of Goldbeck before but clearly he knew what he was doing. After looking for several minutes I made my way down past the rest of the photo hall, quickly forgetting the name of the photographer, and that would've been the end of it if a week later in the UO library I hadn't stumbled on a book of old panoramic photographs. It's rare to find panoramic stuff in books, and as a Noblex user I'm always curious to see what's out there. So when I see something promising I grab it. Lo and behold, the book was The Panoramic Photography of Eugene O. Goldbeck. A week ago I'd never heard of the guy and now he'd come into my life twice in one week. Weird, but photography is like that. Synchronicities are its vital lifeblood.

The Panoramic Photography of Eugene O. Goldbeck is a beautiful book. It contains twenty panoramic photos, each one printed across several folded pages. Reading the book is like having a birthday party. Every photo needs to be carefully unwrapped to see what's inside. Running among and between the photos is the main text, the life story of Eugene Goldbeck.

Goldbeck was the ultimate go-getter. He began photography at an early age, developed solid technical skills, and then leveraged these skills into a self-made business. For many years he traveled the country basically doing photography cold calls. He'd go to a new city, take a few portraits, use those portraits to generate business, and by the end of a few months he'd turned a healthy profit taking and selling photos. He used a Cirkut camera for panoramic work which helped give his photos a unique look.
After he'd finished with one city, he'd head for a new one. Eventually his travel became international and he hired a crew of photographers to work for what had become his photographic agency. He began to photograph various outposts of U.S. servicemen, and that work became his bread and butter. Throughout much of the twentieth century (the photos in the book span a period from 1906 to 1977!), Goldbeck photographed soldiers and equipment of all types, and these photographs became probably his best known work. The first photo in this post is a good example. It was shot in 1947 in San Antonio, was hand-printed more than 10,000 times and is in a wide variety of collections.

There are a few things which interest me about Goldbeck. First is his entrepreneurial approach to photography. Reading his biography you get the feeling he thought of photography more as business than art. He could've just as easily been making fine watches or furniture as photography, but with photography he'd found his natural talent and applied it. While he must've enjoyed the craft of making photos on some level, it's not clear that he was in love with it. Every photo he made was seemingly with the intent of a potential sale, and it's an open question whether he made any exposures purely for his own enjoyment. His commercial motivations effected his art in many ways but probably most visibly in his taste for large group portraits. The more people he could pack into a group photo, the more potential clients there were who might buy a print.

Of course there are thousands of commercial photographers in the same boat. One has to earn a living somehow, and this need does not always conform to personal passion. But with certain other commercial photographers, a deep personal connection to photography is more evident. While Atget, for example, ostensibly made photographs to generate income, I think his drive to photograph Paris overpowered any financial considerations. The same with Disfarmer, Weston, Gene Smith, Arbus, Avedon, or any other number of working commercial photographers who crossed over into the art world. These folks had photography in their blood, whereas Goldbeck's body seems to have circulated a less vital currency. It's fun to speculate about Goldbeck's feelings for photography.

The other thing that fascinates me about Goldbeck is his absolute command of logistics. His photographs often required weeks of planning and preparation. He liked ariel views, and to get this perspective he would construct elaborate temporary towers hundreds of feet high, which would serve as a platform for one photo op before being torn down. His command of groups was extraordinary. How do you get 20,000 people to pose in the right spot, wear the right clothing, and look up at once? Goldbeck left nothing to chance. For his large group portraits, he spent weeks outlining diagrams on paper before transfering them to large areas of ground, marking each person's spot with flags. Here, for example, is a typical preparation diagram followed by its photo.

The diagram and photo above provide a good example of the spatial puzzles that Goldbeck was dealing with. They show essentially the same layout seen from two different perspectives. Because he couldn't shoot from directly above (the perspective we take on the diagram), he needed to tweak the layout of his subject matter to create the illusion of being above. The amount of calculation and planning is just enormous. Virtually all of his group portraits, both panoramic and normal, show this attention to detail and could only be accomplished by a masterful photographer.

In recent photography the natural counterpoint to these perspectival tweaks is John Pfahl's Altered Landscapes series. I have to believe Pfahl was well aware of Goldbeck as he created his images.

The effect is very similar, only this time without people as subject matter. I'm sure it took Pfahl just as much technical diligence to work out the perspective and subject placement in his photographs. Pfahl's are a little more in your face. When you see one of his photos you realize immediately that something is not quite right. The meshing of 2d and 3d is too jarring. Goldbeck on the other hand was more understated. He drew less attention to his spatial tweaking. His images seem so balanced that most people looking at them wouldn't think twice about they were made. But in both cases the age old question is raised: What is the relationship between the subject matter and its 2d portrayal? (A question so simple a dog could answer it?)

This touches also on my post regarding lineups. In a way, Goldbeck was the ultimate liner upper. His photographs rely on a very particular camera position (often 200 feet straight up). Shot from any other place the illusion would crumble, just as with the lineups mentioned earlier.

I think The Panoramic Photography of Eugene Goldbeck may be difficult to find, but if anyone out there sees a copy it's worth looking through.


Billie Mercer said...

So glad you discovered Eugene. I bought the book when it first came out of the University of Texas press because it was so beautifully made and the work facinated me. It was a pricey book at the time but it was well worth the money to me.

Anonymous said...

Thenks, never seen those pictures before.
How weird that later today I saw that picture in an Israeli forum. I'm not sure thats the same photographer, but it look similar.

Blake Andrews said...

I'm not sure if that's a Goldbeck photo but it very well could be. Thanks for the link.