America By The Yard: Cirkut Camera Images From The Early Twentieth Century

by Matt Damsker


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By Robert B. MacKay. December, 2006; published by W.W. Norton & Co., $100 hardback; 216 pages, over 100 black-and-white plates. ISBN No. 0-393-05160-5; phone: 212-354-5500, fax: 212-869-0856. Website:

A cheerful and nostalgic corollary to the large-format 9/11 images of Meyerowitz--as well as the hyper-detailed artistry of Gursky--this charming and handsome volume documents one of photography's great novelties: Eastman Kodak's Cirkut Camera, a rotational device for taking panoramic photos (called "yard-longs" in their day, many of them extending to as much as five feet in width). The Cirkut was a pop phenomenon during the 1910s and 1920s, and was in use through World War II as well. Cirkut collector and antiquarian Robert B. MacKay provides an entertaining history of this invention, along with crisp reproductions that reveal the camera's excellent capacity for delivering rich detail on an unprecedented panoramic scale.

Indeed, despite its wondrously extended eye, the Cirkut was destined to become a dinosaur for much the same reason as did the wraparound cinematic novelty known as Cinerama. Contact-printed from their exceedingly long negatives (few of which survive today), Cirkut panoramas weren't terribly practical or cost-efficient for photographers. More to the point, Cirkut images, like Cinerama, offer breadth of vision but none of the eye-guiding artistry that makes for effective photography. This is probably why so many Cirkut photos are of large groups of people--the 1908 class of Wellesley college, for example, or an international twins' convention, or bomber squadrons, sports teams, bathing beauties, and conventioneers--spread across the remarkable width of the yard-longs. These made sensational souvenirs for the people in the pictures. But when it came to documenting an unpeopled expanse or any other landscape, Cirkut photographers were hard-pressed to compose a coherent image, shaping and shading a precise moment of physical reality, as opposed to capturing an unfettered sweep of visual data, from far left to far right.

That said, there are exceptions to this rule of the Cirkut's aesthetic. J.W. Sandison's shot of a lumberyard in Washington State captures the acres of piled wood with a fascinating feel for the textures and geometries of this industrial expanse. And a Cirkut photo of the 1922 New York Yankees baseball team stops the eye dead in the middle of the photo, as a cocksure Babe Ruth stands out in all his vividness and charismatic heft, and seems to draw in all the energy of the moment with his familiar moon face. Ultimately, it is these flashes of human interest that activate most of the Cirkut photos, as the photographers struggle to compose interesting assemblages of so much detail, and occasionally succeed, as in some of the military photos of naval fleets or mechanized brigades. Thanks to Robert MacKay, Eastman Kodak's exercise in visual (and commercial) ambition and the roaring era during which it flourished are well remembered and lovingly resurrected.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.