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The Panoramic City: Sweeping Views of New York with the iPhone 5

The panorama plays a special role in the history of photography, as the practice of capturing exceptionally wide-angle images of the city dates to the earliest days of the medium.

Panorama of Washington Square Park. October 6, 2012.
Clicking on images enlarges them.

In the mid-19th century, marvelous images of cityscapes and natural landscapes were made by placing daguerreotypes side by side, and they were a wonder to behold. Subsequent photo processes involved taking sequential exposures of the scenes and then printing them from wet-plate glass negatives. Panoramas become so popular that in the late 19th century manufacturers began producing special cameras specifically for the effect. In the early 20th century, Kodak mass-produced panoramic cameras for the consumer.* Their popularity continues with digital photography.

"The Brighton Beach Hotel, Brooklyn, N.Y., being moved away from beach front," 1888
Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-53843 DLC]

"Panorama, baseball, Polo Grounds, New York, October 13, 1910."
Gelatin silver print.
Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-127099 DLC] 


New York City, with its sweeping broad views of harbor, rivers, and skyline, lends itself well to panoramas. The NYPL Digital Gallery and the Library of Congress (see the LOC's Panoramic Photograph Collection), among others, include several examples of early panoramic views of the city in their collections. We can see a couple of examples in the pictures above. The first, dating from 1888, shows the marvel of locomotives pulling the Brighton Beach Hotel away from the beach. The second image is a wide view from October 1910 of the Polo Grounds, home at the time to the New York Giants baseball club.

Panoramic view of New York Harbor from Battery Park
October 6, 2012.
This sort of distortion is typical of many panoramas.


One feature of the new iPhone 5 camera is a built-in panoramic option, thus proving a convenient means of showing the marvelous big scale of New York cityscapes. While a digital marvel, the panoramic shots taken with the phone still often produce the same curved distortion of historic panoramas. In a comforting way, these images connect to a celebrated photographic tradition.

Panoramic view of East River, bridges, and Brooklyn
October 6, 2012.

This weekend, I took the iPhone 5 with me for several literal spins about the city. A cold front blew though New York during the day on Saturday, dramatically shifting the atmosphere from warm and sunny to cool and moody.

Panoramic view of Pier 17
October 6, 2012.

On Sunday, the day started off with sunshine and a few high clouds. The light was bright and sunny on big wide Houston Street.

Panoramic view of Houston Street near Broadway.
more wide angle than panoramic but still made with the iPhone 5 panorama feature.
October 7, 2012.

* Source: "A Brief History of Panoramic Photography," American Memory, The Library of Congress.

Contemporary panoramas by Walking Off the Big Apple.





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