William Steig: Poor Pitiful Pearl
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The largest photograph in the world: 1904

I was looking through some of my old magazines the other day and came across two items on really big photographs. The first comes from Collier's, January 9th, 1904. That was the year the Russo-Japanese war began, foretold by the cover Collier's headline, "The Russo-Japanese Crisis".

1904 was the year The United States gained control of the Panama Canal. That year British troops invaded Tibet, and Longacre Square in New York City was renamed Times Square. It was the year of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition World's Fair (Meet Me In St. Louis) and it was the year the first subway opened in New York City. Cary Grant was born that year.  And it was a BIG year for photography, if size matters.

 Largest photo in the world 3
Collier's Magazine, Jan. 9. 1904 p.11 PSAW ephemera collections

Text: "A photograph 40 feet long and nearly 5 feet high, which has just been completed in Italy, will be exhibited at St. Louis this summer. It is a picture of the Gulf of Naples, and the negatives were taken from the highest point available near that city, on the Castle San Marino, showing a view of Vesuvius and the sea. Each separate negative of the many which go to make up the entire picture, measures 8 1/4 x 10 3/4 inches. They all fit end to end, thus showing a continuous panorama."


 Largest photo in the world 1904 

Sliding the photograph into the toning and fixing bath.

"From these negatives, enlargements were made 6 feet long and 5 feet high. The joining of the several parts, although very difficult, has been most cleverly done, so that the junctures are hardly discernible, even to experts. To develop the negatives a wheel was constructed some 12 feet in diameter and 6 feet wide, with a circumference of about 40 feet."

 Largest photo in the world detail 2
Washing off the fixing solution.

"Three separate tanks were used for holding the developing fluid. The tank for fixing was 45 feet long by 7 feet wide and three feet deep. The entire operation of developing was carried on in the open air during a dark night. In order to restrain local development, liquid was poured upon certain portions of the negatives from a hose, while other parts which required forcing were treated with a sponge filled with developer. Eight hours were required for washing the photographs in running water and ten hours for drying. Little retouching was necessary."


 Largest photo in the world detail 3
Adding the finishing touches to the completed print.

In a moment of random coincidence, the next magazine I picked up, Calling All Girls, from June 1944, contained this ad:

 Camera takes pictures 6 feet tall
Calling All Girls, June 1944. Ad for Bell Telephone System

"Imagine a camera so big the photographer must work inside, using a loudspeaker telephone to give directions to his assistants outside. Largest of its kind in the United States, this camera can turn out negatives six feet long and three and a half feet wide - as many as 800 a day. It copies valuable tracings of research drawings by telephone scientists. Another example of one of the many ways the Bell Telephone Laboratories is helping to speed new developments in the dependable communications equipment for our armed forces."

I wonder what they were really used for. If anyone knows, please leave a note.

So the 1904 photograph was really the world's largest print, but not the world's largest negative. Made, one supposes, for entertainment but not for war, it didn't really matter that it was so time consuming and difficult. All part of the thrill. 

It turns out that the world's  largest photograph to date was made in 2007 Irvine California by The Legacy Project using a variation of a pinhole camera obscura. Check out the Legacy Project website. It's fascinating.

Camera Obscura and pinhole cameras have been used since antiquity, although the early versions did not fix the image on a surface. In the 2007 photograph was taken in  converted airplane hangar, turned into a camera obscura, by opening a gumball sized hole in the wall.

 World's largest photo 2007
The Legacy Project photograph.

The image from the hole projected onto a light sensitive fabric the length of  one third of a football field and three stories tall. 60 volunteers developed the image by moving the fabric into an enormous 1 foot deep tray.

Well, it sounds a bit like the 1904 operation after all.

Your comments are always welcome.