In 1900, a Photographer Had to Create an Enormous 1,400-Pound Camera to Take a Picture of an Entire Train

Cam­eras are small, and get­ting small­er all the time. This devel­op­ment has helped us all doc­u­ment our lives, shar­ing the sights we see with an ease dif­fi­cult to imag­ine even twen­ty years ago. 120 years ago, pho­tog­ra­phy faced an entire­ly dif­fer­ent set of chal­lenges, but then as now, much of the moti­va­tion to meet them came from com­mer­cial inter­ests. Take the case of Chica­go pho­tog­ra­ph­er George R. Lawrence and his client the Chica­go & Alton Rail­way, who want­ed to pro­mote their brand-new Chica­go-to-St. Louis express ser­vice, the Alton Lim­it­ed. This prod­uct of the gold­en age of Amer­i­can train trav­el demand­ed some respectable pho­tog­ra­phy, a tech­nol­o­gy then still in its thrilling, pos­si­bil­i­ty-filled emer­gence.

A tru­ly ele­gant piece of work, the Alton Lim­it­ed would, dur­ing its 72-year lifes­pan, boast such fea­tures as a post office, a library, a Japan­ese tea-room, and a strik­ing maroon-and-gold col­or scheme that earned it the nick­name “the Red Train.”

Even from a dis­tance, the Alton Lim­it­ed looked upon its intro­duc­tion in 1899 like noth­ing else on the rail­roads, with its six iden­ti­cal Pull­man cars all designed in per­fect sym­me­try — the very aspect that so chal­lenged Lawrence to cap­ture it in a pho­to­graph. Sim­ply put, the whole train would­n’t fit in one pic­ture. While he could have shot each car sep­a­rate­ly and then stitched them togeth­er into one big print, he reject­ed that tech­nique for its inabil­i­ty to “pre­serve the absolute truth­ful­ness of per­spec­tive.”

Only a much big­ger cam­era, Lawrence knew, could cap­ture the whole train. And so, in the words of Atlas Obscu­ra’s Ani­ka Burgess, he “quick­ly went to work design­ing a cam­era that could hold a glass plate mea­sur­ing 8 feet by 4 1/2 feet. It was con­struct­ed by the cam­era man­u­fac­tur­er J.A. Ander­son from nat­ur­al cher­ry wood, with bespoke Carl Zeiss lens­es (also the largest ever made). The cam­era alone weighed 900 pounds. With the plate hold­er, it reached 1,400 pounds. Accord­ing to an August 1901 arti­cle in the Brook­lyn Dai­ly Eagle, the bel­lows was big enough to hold six men, and the whole cam­era took a total of 15 work­ers to oper­ate.” Trans­port­ing the cam­era to Brighton Park, “an ide­al van­tage point from which to shoot the wait­ing train,” required anoth­er team of men, and devel­op­ing the eight-foot long pho­to took ten gal­lons of chem­i­cals.

The adver­tise­ments in which Lawrence’s pho­to­graph appeared prac­ti­cal­ly glowed with pride in the Alton Lim­it­ed, billing it as “a train for two cities,” as “the only way between Chica­go and St. Louis,” as “the hand­somest train in the world.” The whole-train pic­ture beg­gared belief: though it went on to win Lawrence the Grand Prize for World Pho­to­graph­ic Excel­lence at the 1900 Paris Expo­si­tion, Burgess notes, it looked so impos­si­ble that both the pho­tog­ra­ph­er and Chica­go & Alton “had to sub­mit affi­davits to ver­i­fy that the pho­to­graph had been made on one plate.” We in the 21st cen­tu­ry, of course, have no rea­son to doubt its authen­tic­i­ty, or even to mar­vel at its inge­nu­ity until we know the sto­ry of the immense cus­tom cam­era with which Lawrence shot it. Today, what awes us are all those small­er shots of the Alton Lim­it­ed’s inte­ri­or, exud­ing a lux­u­ri­ous­ness that has long van­ished from Amer­i­ca’s rail­roads. If we were to find our­selves on such a train today, we’d sure­ly start Insta­gram­ming it right away.

via Atlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Behold a Beau­ti­ful Archive of 10,000 Vin­tage Cam­eras at Col­lec­tion Appareils

19-Year-Old Stu­dent Uses Ear­ly Spy Cam­era to Take Can­did Street Pho­tos (Cir­ca 1895)

See the First Pho­to­graph of a Human Being: A Pho­to Tak­en by Louis Daguerre (1838)

The His­to­ry of Pho­tog­ra­phy in Five Ani­mat­ed Min­utes: From Cam­era Obscu­ra to Cam­era Phone

Darren’s Big DIY Cam­era

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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