Panoramic Queensland

Tuesday 3 March 2009

The other day I went to the State Library of Queensland to see Panoramic Queensland, an exhibition of panoramic pho­to­graphs from the John Oxley Library collection. This is a fine showing of several dozen panoramas of Brisbane and other Queensland places.

There is an excellent catalogue​—​nicely printed on heavy stock in panoramic format with good quality reproductions, with fold­outs, with an interesting introduction by curator Stephanie Lindquist, and it’s free for the taking.

Panorama photographs are wonderful things, spacious and full of detail. If I had to choose just one, my favourite in the ex­hi­bi­tion shows a freshly-built Victoria Bridge on a quiet misty morn­ing around 1874. It’s a big, sweeping picture with wonderful repetitive elements combined with quirky details. There are no people in it, but I can feel their presence​—​I know that all those rivets were peened and pounded by men with heavy hammers.

Panorama of the Victoria Bridge taken from the south-east, by an unknown photographer, circa 1874. Scroll around the delicious detail of this photograph on the library website.

The exhibition is good, in parts. Call me grumpy, but I must mention some missed opportunities and things that didn’t work as well as they should.

Lighting: The light level in the exhibition is low, as it should be. But I was annoyed that lights behind me cast my shadow onto the works on the wall, and shadows made it hard to see items in the display cases. Some lights need to be shifted.

Noise loop: A seven minute video about the exhibition by librarian Simon Farley plays constantly in the exhibition space, filling the room with distracting noise. The spiel gets annoying on the fourth hearing.

Cameras etc.: Four panoramic cameras were on display, trapped in display cases without their tripods, with labels that identified each camera more or less correctly (I thought the misspelling of the name of the Cirkut camera was unfortunate). These token display pieces alerted me to the missed opportunity to interpret the evidence in each of the panoramas of the technical methods used in their production.

A 1920s catalogue illustration of a No 5 Cirkut camera, capable of taking 360° panoramas on continuous rolls of film. Sandy Barrie provided one of these on loan for the exhibition, along with a wonderful Folmer & Schwing banquet camera and an Al-Vista swing lens panoramic camera.

Before and since: The material on show begins with an 1862 series of photographs taken from the windmill, and ends with a digital print of the corresponding view in 2008. Stephanie Lindquist’s short catalogue essay introduces the work of pre-photography panorama painters, and refers to Bowerman’s 1835 watercolour of Brisbane​—​There can be little doubt that early Queensland settlers had some knowledge of the panoramic tradition. … The first signed and dated painting of the Moreton Bay colony was in fact a panorama by Commissariat Officer Henry Boucher Bowerman, a trained topographical artist​—​but this picture was not included in the exhibition, surely an opportunity missed. And in the present time, when the use of photographic film has dwindled away, the exhibition misses the chance to interpret recent digital developments in panorama photography.

Moreton Bay Settlement, New South Wales, 1835, watercolour attributed to H B Bowerman (1789-1840). This picture [Accession no 3944] and several related pencil sketches are in the collection of the John Oxley Library.

filed under History + Photography

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