Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Lawrence of America

San Francisco experienced an earthquake in 1906. You know this.

But you may not know about George Lawrence, the man who photographed it.

Lawrence and his associate Harry Myers used a system of kites, various wires, and a half mile of line to lift a 46 pound camera somewhere between 800 and 1000 feet above the flattened city. After checking the camera's orientation with binoculars they used a telephone magneto to trip the camera's solenoid-activated shutter.

The camera captured a panoramic view on a 22 by 55 inch sheet of film. When the exposure was over a small parachute fell from the suspended camera as a signal to the photographer.

Lawrence called his device the Lawrence Captive Airship. It used "a string of seven kites to lift the specially designed cameras to heights of 2,000 ft. Cameras weighing as much as 49 pounds and capable of producing negatives from 10 x 24 inches to a staggering 30 x 87 inches in size. The largest negatives yet taken from any airborne vehicle."

From his San Francisco photographs "he earned a small fortune, $15,000 (more than $300,000 today), selling reproductions of the image." (see Drachen Foundation)

In 2006, at the hundredth anniversary, two groups attempted to duplicate Lawrence's accomplishments.
One group was the Drachen Foundation, "a non-profit educational corporation, established in 1995 and devoted to the increase and dissemination of knowledge about kites worldwide."

It sponsored Bay Area photographer Scott Haefner, and associates, who used kites. Haefner used two cameras, a Hasselblad XpanII with a 30mm lens and a Nikon D70s SLR with a 10.5mm fisheye lens. However the FAA limited the maximum altitude of their kites to 500 feet.

The second group used a full sized replica of George Lawrence's camera. To avoid the airspace restrictions and the unreliability of kites, this group used a helicopter. This option also enabled them to shoot from the exact location that Lawrence had used 100 years earlier.

"Since the same type of camera, lens, and film size were used, the end product produced a photographic image with the identical clarity and dimensions of the original Lawrence photograph. This effect cannot be duplicated with modern equipment," said Ron Klein, leader of this group. (See page.)

Klein is a past president of the International Association of Panoramic Photographers. He also built the camera he used.

You can see this group's results and even buy a copy of their results.

But George Lawrence did more. He also invented and built the world's largest camera. It weighed 900 pounds and used glass plates four and a half by eight feet in size. In 1900 the isochromatic plates for this camera cost $1800 a dozen, if you wanted a dozen. The same company that made the plates also made matching paper for contact prints. Put one of those on your cubicle wall.

The camera even had not one but two lenses, one with a focal length of five and a half feet, the other of 10 feet.

"The camera was so large that prior to exposure a man could enter and dust off the plate as follows: The holder is put in position, the large front board, or front door as it may be called, is swung open, the operator passes inside with a camel's hair duster, the door is then closed and a ruby glass cap placed over the lens, the curtain slide is drawn and the operator dusts the plate in a portable dark room, after which the slide is closed and he passes out the same way as he entered." (See page.)

If you check up on Lawrence's history you'll find even more astonishing facts about him.


The 2006 Drachen kite project: "Recreating George Lawrence's Photographic Feat One Hundred Years Later San Francisco, California"

The 2006 Ron Klein helicopter project: "Lawrence Panoramic Camera Project"

Sketches: "Kite Photography Page, The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake"


Series of articles by Dr Simon Baker with many other links: "Dr. Simon Baker on George Lawrence"


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