‘The Hitherto Impossible in Photography Is Our Specialty’ – George R. Lawrence

 The Mammoth Camera, built in 1900.

In the 1900’s the unthinkable was created, a Chicago camera builder J. A. Anderson had received his most recent construction, the world’s largest camera, the camera required 15 men to load it into a van. They took it to the Chicago & Alton Railway Station where it was transferred to a flat car and moved to Brighton Park, some 6 miles from the city. There, they carried the 900 lbs camera a quarter of a mile to a suitable location in an open field. Under the direction of the camera’s designer, George R Lawrence, it was set up and pointed at the brand-new train standing in the distance. The Alton Limited was the pride of the Chicago & Alton Railway and the company had commissioned Lawrence to make the largest photograph possible of it, sparing no expense. Lawrence obliged by designing and overseeing the construction of a camera that could utilize glass plates 8 x 4½ ft in size. On that day he made a successful photograph of the train and with it he also made photographic history!

The Chicago & Alton Railway where known to have reportedly spent $5000 to construct a camera that would only make one exceptionally large plate. That would have been a lot of money for the first decade of the twentieth century, yet the railway company believed that their money was well spent. Both the camera and the train were described in great detail in the company’s pamphlet entitled The Largest Photograph in the World of the Handsomest train in the World.

One of the reasons why they decided to make this camera was because they had a strong desire to participate in the Paris Exposition of 1900. Three contact prints were made from the perfectly exposed plate and sent to Paris. There were claims that the photograph was made from a single plate, which was immediately met with suspicion that it would be impossible. No one in Paris had ever heard of a camera capable of making such large plates, they were nearly three times the size of the largest plates known. The French Consul in New York was dispatched to Chicago to verify the existence of the camera and to observe its mode of operation. He came back to report that intact it was true, which seemed to have satisfied doubts in the minds of the Exposition management and it cleared the way for displaying the photographs, which awarded Lawrence the ‘Grand Prize of the World for Photographic Excellence’.

 In 1899 Lawrence received the highest award for artificial light photography from the Photographic Association of America, for his invention of a brighter flash powder and a means of simultaneously setting off a series of charges by using electricity. Out of doors he carried his large format cameras aloft on guyed ladders and a more than 200 ft high collapsible tower of his own invention in order to photograph the action and crowds at sporting events. In 1901 he had been in two life-threatening accidents in balloons, this convinced him to look for another way of raising his cameras into the sky for aerial views. He solution was placing flying kites in trains which was a way to keep the camera steady under varying wind conditions. This apparatus he called the ‘captive airship’ and he succeeded in producing clear negatives of the order of 48 x 20 in size from as high as 2000 ft. His aerial photographs of San Francisco after the earthquake and fire of 1906 caused a sensation when seen around the world.  It is clear that George R. Lawrence was no ordinary photographer, he also had a great talent of creating new ways to take photographs.

Thus, when confronted with the commission by the Chicago & Alton Railway to have its new train photographed on a plate no less that 8 ft wide he considered the problems and responded with a solution. After all, the slogan of his studio was ‘The Hitherto Impossible in Photography Is Our Specialty’. When he explained his plans he was given a free hand to proceed, two-and-a-half months later the camera was ready. It was a camera unlike any other in the world. It weighed 900 lbs and when loaded with the 500 lb plate holder made a total of 1400 lbs. When fully extended the bed was about 20 ft long and the camera had a double swing front and back. Across the top of the frame at the rear was a small track on which two focusing screens were mounted to move back and forth like sliding doors. Two Zeiss patent lenses were especially made by the Bausch and Lomb Optical Company of Rochester, New York. One was a wide-angle lens of 5½ ft equivalent focus and the second one, which was used to make the train photograph, was a telescopic rectilinear lens of 10 ft equivalent focus. 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.

The camera was made up of many materials: The bellows consisted of three layers: an outer covering of heavy rubber, a lining of black canvas, and an additional lining of opaque black material. Each fold was stiffened by a piece of whitewood 1/4 in thickness. This light-proof construction required two bolts of wide rubber cloth, more than 40 gallons of cement, and 500ft of whitewood to ensure that it would keep ridged. The heavy bellows were divided into four sections and between each one there was a supporting frame mounted on small wheels to move freely on a steel track. The huge plate holder had a cloth-lined wooden roller curtain that was light-tight and, when placed on the camera, it could be rolled back to uncover the glass plate just prior to exposure. The Cramer Company of St Louis manufactured the 8 x 4½ ft glass plates using its isochromatic emulsion. These were said to have cost $1800 per dozen. The company also produced the equally large sheets of sensitized paper used in making the contact prints. New techniques for developing and printing were also worked out with the co-operation of the Cramer Company.

When the moment came to exposing the plate it was extremely tense for Lawrence, it lasted two-and-a-half minutes. It is very likely that the final tension did not occur until sometime later in the darkroom when the crisp image of the train showed up on the amazing glass plate. Only then Lawrence was certain that he had solved yet another problem, creating a truly one of a kind invention.