|Orientation plan for the Panorama of London, 1792 (source)||Excerpt from Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Ed Ruscha, 1966 (source)|
The painted panorama (Latin for all sight) was invented by Robert Barker at the end of the 18th century, as a sort of low-tech holodeck. Displayed along the interior walls of a cylindrical room, panoramic paintings surrounded viewers, transporting them into the world of the artist. Despite the flexibility afforded by the painted medium, Barker’s first panoramas focused primarily on urban geography. His first major panorama displayed in London was an image of the city of London itself, from the South Bank, a strange topic given that Londoners could view their city for free by going outside. Given the success of the London panorama, similar paintings were created in Paris and Berlin, depicting Paris and Berlin respectively. The panoramas eventually toured the continent, offering a perverse version of travel to the public—a theme which became increasingly popular as the medium developed. While purpose built panoramas were constructed throughout Europe and America, the static paintings could not compete with the dynamism of the cinema which exploded in popularity at the beginning of the 20th century. The medium was all but lost.
Skip ahead a hundred years, and the panorama is alive and well, however, on the computer—a strange twist, as the panorama was in the past celebrated primarily for its spatial qualities. However, despite shedding its spatial roots, the panorama has remained constant in its depiction of urban geography—the primary subject of technologies such as Google’s Street View. And just as the panorama’s of the 18th century allowed the public to metaphorically travel the world without stepping foot on foreign soil, it is now possible to re-create Barker’s view of the South Bank of London with a single click of a web link.
E. Sean Bailey
Throughout most of the 19th century, panoramic paintings provided European audiences with expansive vistas amongst elaborate scenery. Panoramas and their architectural manifestations, rotundas, became popular sites for the masses. Some offered views of urban settings or natural landscapes, whilst others displayed comprehensive surveys of historical events such as The Battle of Solferino, at the Panorama National in Paris. The panorama created an illusion, translating reality into fiction.
Similar to the map, the panorama builds on the premise that reality is staged and modeled, therefore partial and particular. It filters and reconstructs the past, inherently acquiring a sense of authority and power. The panorama constructs, but does not reproduce.
With photography succeeding painting in the 20th Century as the visual medium of importance, the reading of the panorama challenged our perception of what is real, offering a piecemeal mode of navigation through the city. By assembling landscapes from several photographs an all-encompassing view of the city is composed. The random gaze of the photographer substituted the subjective eye and hand of the painter, turning the panoramic experience into a somewhat more authentic one. In 1966, Ed Rusha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip presented a series of images of banal street facades stitched together as an almost anthropological record of the urban experience of the strip. The book, as a modern backdrop for the photographic panorama replaced the rotunda and provided a modest site of public display.
Today, the photographic panorama as seen in Ruscha’s work is taken one step further in Google Earth Street View which offers a relatively unmediated act of looking at our environment: a vista which does not end, an infinite and authentic panoramic experience.