George R Lawrence

Birdseye View of Indiana Steel Co.'s Plant, Gary, Ind. 1910

I recently discovered the photographs of George R Lawrence, probably an unfamiliar name to most but quite relevant in the annuals of photo history. Among his achievements; he perfected the use of flashlight photography, invented fascinating balloon and kite apparatuses for aerial photography, made great advances in panoramic photography, and built the worlds largest camera. There is an excellent article about him by Janice Petterchak from the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society here from which I have pulled many excerpts to accompany the following photographs. Mr. George R Lawrence was pretty damn fabulous.

Large banquet hall filled with people at tables, fountain in center. Geo. R. Lawrence Co.

Beginning about 1900, "Flashlight Lawrence" also designed and developed his own panoramic banquet camera, which was manufactured for him by the G. Cramer Dry Plate Company of St. Louis, Missouri. With earlier panoramic equipment, members of the group being photographed were positioned in an equidistant arc from the rotating camera. Lawrence's panoramic camera incorporated an equalized focal plane, which provided a proportional image of each individual in the group picture. He earned substantial fees traveling the country to photograph banquets, conventions, legislative sessions, and other such assemblies.

Lawrence's success with panoramic cameras led officials of the Chicago and Alton Railroad to request a single-plate photograph of its new Chicago-to-St. Louis passenger train, the "Alton Limited." To that time, according to a company writer, no railway train in the world had ever presented a design so uniform and symmetrical. No train of cars had ever before been built with windows of the same size, shape, and style from mail car to parlor car; the cars in no train heretofore had all been mounted on standard six-wheel trucks; no former effort had been made to have every car in the train precisely the same length and height; and no railway, except the Alton Road, had ever caused the tender of its locomotives to be constructed to rise to the exact height of the body of the cars following; the hood of its locomotives to the exact height of the roofs of the cars. This gave a fascinating beauty to the train-carrying out of the principal features with classic regularity-the absolute unity of detail from cow-catcher to observation platform. Indeed this was what created, and impelled, the idea to obtain a photograph of the "Limited" sufficiently large to readily impress the public with the train's unprecedented symmetry.

Lawrence, who had previously photographed some of the railroad line's standard passenger locomotives, "was called into conference" on this project. With existing cameras, he explained, he could make only a series of sectional views and piece them together. Company officials, however, "had built a faultless train of which they demanded a faultless photograph, insisting that in length the picture must not measure less than eight feet."

Accepting the challenge, Lawrence sought the assistance of local inventor J. A. Anderson. Within eight months they designed and built the "Big Camera," a massive contraption weighed 1,400 pounds and requiring fifteen operators. The bellows extended twenty feet on steel-track wheels. The lenses were reported as the largest ever ground for photographic work-the telescopic rectilinear lens being 11 feet equivalent focus. The 10'x6' plate-holder created 8'x4 1/2' pictures-three times the print size of existing panoramic cameras. Other features included light-proof curtains (resembling window shades), which protected the negative before and after exposure. The camera could be adjusted for either upright or horizontal views. The large photographic plate was created by the Cramer Dry Plate Company. "Owing to the dimensions required," wrote a reporter, "it was necessary to provide new apparatus. A great marble slab, larger than the plate, was the first requisite. Upon this the plate is resting while the coating is being applied. Large pieces of ice beneath the slab keep it at a temperature that will cool the emulsion rapidly as it is applied."14 New developing and printing methods were also worked out. The negative plates cost $1,800 per dozen.In a letter to the editor of Photographic Times, Lawrence's partner, Anderson, described "the largest camera in the world":

As a ground glass for focusing in this mammoth camera would be clumsy to handle and liable to breakage two frames were made to slide on the back of the camera, and celluloid strips made to fit in these frames, making a very light and satisfactory substitute for the usual ground glass.

With his camera transported on a special railroad flatcar, Lawrence made the Chicago and Alton photograph at Brighton Park, about six miles from downtown Chicago. "The day was clear but a high wind was blowing, notwithstanding which, after an exposure of two and one-half minutes, on a full Cramer Isochromatic Plate (this special plate being used to preserve the color value of the train), a perfect negative was secured. The picture of The Alton Limited ... was reproduced, without the slightest 'retouching' upon the part of the engraver, from a platinum print."

Three prints of Lawrence's huge Alton Limited picture were submitted for the Paris Exposition of 1900. One was placed in the railway section, another was hung in the photographic section, and the third was given a place of honor in the United States Government Building, "a liberality of exhibition privileges accorded to no other single exhibit in the entire Exhibition." At first the judges in a photography competition branded the image a "fake" and sent the French Consul General from New York to inspect the camera in Chicago. Convinced of its authenticity, Exposition officials awarded Lawrence their "Grand Prize of the World for Photographic Excellence."

San Francisco after the 190 earthquake.

This is a 160-degree panorama from a kite like apparatus Lawrence made and taken 2000 feet in the air above the San Francisco Bay that showed the entire city on a single 17-by-48-inch contact print made from a single piece of film. Each print sold for $125 and Lawrence made at least $15,000 in sales from this one photograph. The camera used in this photograph weighed 49 pounds and used a celluloid-film plate.

Gary's Fire Fighters, Gary, Indiana 1914

above excerpts from Photography genius: George R Lawrence & The hitherto impossible
Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2002 by Janice Petterchak