Wired Magazine recently ran a feature on Charles Fontayne and William Porter’s 1848 photographic panorama of Cincinnati’s waterfront, owned by the Cincinnati Public Library. Conservators at the George Eastman House have been working on the eight daguerreotypes that comprise the panorama, and in the process they have done a couple of interesting things. First, using a stereo microscope, they figured out just how far they could zoom without loosing resolution—according to Wired, “the panorama could be blown up to 170 by 20 feet without losing clarity.” They also created high-resolution digital scans of each 6.5” x 8.5” plate and trained a computer to “clean” them of spots left by dust and other deterioration, pixel by pixel. Looking very carefully, the conservation team has been able to discover all sorts of new information embedded in these views: faces in windows, shop signs, the time on the clock tower, clues to a imminent cholera epidemic. The panorama even provides early documentation of Cincinnati’s free black community. On the Wired site you can see all eight images, and zoom in on one of them at 10x.
The Cincinnati project reminded me of a small exhibition I saw this summer in Brussels at the BELvue Museum. It was an in-depth exploration of a panorama painting by Jean-Baptiste Bonnecroy of Brussels ca. 1664-1665. Here’s a photo I took of one section of the exhibition:
You could study the huge painting itself in all its glory, but you could also use interpretive features to learn more about the details Bonnecroy depicted. There was a key to all the major landmarks, for example, and an interactive touchscreen for zooming in on specific parts of the city. There was also a contemporary photographic panorama for comparison. If I hadn’t been scheduled to meet my husband, I could’ve spent a good hour in there staring at this image.
The Cincinnati daguerreotypes also reminded me of my niece Franny’s recent fascination with Richard Scarry books. Franny is starting to make connections between different scenes—the photograph on the desk on one page is of a character who appears a few pages later, for example. Busytown, USA is a very different kind of city than Cincinnati or Brussels, but it’s no less real to millions of kids who have zoned out to Scarry’s illustrations (and in fact in 1990s the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry did indeed create a real Busytown as a traveling exhibition). I’d like to think that Franny is learning the kind of close-observation skills that some day will help her mark the subtle patterns and changes in her own neighborhood.
Sometimes you need to see a city in broad strokes of history, but other times it’s just as important to stop the clock and get lost in the details. So here’s to panoramas and birds-eye-views, and Busytown USA. And here’s to looking really, really hard.