Figure 1. Lawrence stands beside the lens with a giant lens cap under this left arm and a watch in his right hand making the exposure The roller curtain operator stands at the rear and all attention is concentrated on the train. Division of Photographic History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
Early on a bright spring morning in 1900 a large horse-drawn van arrived at the workshop of Chicago camera builder J. A. Anderson. His most recent construction, the world's largest camera, was ready for delivery and it required 15 men to load it into the van. They took it to the Chicago & Alton Railway Station where it was laboriously 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 question arises as to why the Chicago & Alton Railway should have spent a reported $5000 to construct a camera to make only one exceptionally large plate. 1 That was a lot of money in the first decade of the twentieth century; actually, the amount was enough to purchase a substantial house. As far as the railway company was concerned, the money was well spent. Both the camera and the train were described in great detail in the company's pamphlet entitled The Largest Photograph m the World of the Handsomest train in the World. The company's enthusiasm and pride in the train was explained as follows:
No train of cars had ever before been built with windows of the same size, shape, and style from mail car to parlor car, the cars in no train heretofore had all been mounted on standard six-wheels trucks, no former effort had been made to have every car in the train precisely the same length and height, and no railway, except the Alton Road, had ever caused the tender of its locomotives to be constructed to rise to the exact height of the body of the cars following, the hood of its locomotives to the exact height of the roofs of the cars. This gave a fascinating beauty to the train -- carrying out of the principal features with classic regularity -- the absolute unity of detail from cow-catcher to observation platform. Indeed this was what created, and impelled, the idea to obtain a photograph of the 'Limited' sufficiently large to readily impress the public with the train's uniform conformation. 2Impressing the public, or advertising, seems to have been the chief motivation for the project. It appears that competition between railways in the United States at that time was intense. The author of a newspaper article commenting on the costs involved in making the photograph said:
The expense, it can be readily seen, is not small, and it illustrates the lengths to which railroads go nowadays to place before the public the attractions and advantages offered by their lines. In the way of an advertising undertaking this feat of General Passenger Agent George J Charlton's is somewhat astounding. 3A second major reason for making the photograph was the desire to participate in the Paris Exposition of 1900. Rather than ship the entire train to France, the Chicago & Alton Railway decided that the cost of making the huge photograph would be more economical, but the results would be spectacular nevertheless. 4 Three contact prints were made from the perfectly exposed plate and sent to Paris. They were intended for exhibition in the United States Government Building, the railway exhibit, and the photographic section This was considered to be a singular honour because no other exhibit was accorded such wide display. However, the claim that the photograph was made from a single plate was immediately met with scepticism. 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. Even the affidavits provided by Lawrence and officials of the Chicago & Alton Railway were doubted. 5 The French Consul in New York was dispatched to Chicago to verify the existence of the camera and to observe its mode of operation. His positive report seems to have satisfied doubts in the minds of the Exposition management and it cleared the way for displaying the photographs and ultimately awarding to Lawrence the 'Grand Prize of the World for Photographic Excellence'. 6
This 32-year-old commercial photographer was not the graduate of some prominent technical institution, but was a northern Illinois farm boy with a country-school education. At the age of 20 Lawrence went to Chicago to work as a draftsman in a wagon factory. Eventually, his artistic ability found scope in the making of crayon enlargements from cabinet photographs, and he rented studio space from a commercial photographer. When the photographer suddenly left town in 1893, abandoning his camera and dark room equipment, Lawrence found himself the sole proprietor of the studio. He persuaded a photographer's apprentice to teach him plate development and from that point onward taught himself everything he needed to know about photography. 7 Within 10 years of his arrival in Chicago, Lawrence was established as a commercial photographer specializing in large-format Images. Part of his business involved photographing interiors with large groups of people such as both houses of the Illinois Legislature and the Chicago Board of Trade, among others. He was alone in this field because of his invention of a brighter flash powder and a means of simultaneously setting off a series of charges by using electricity. 8 In recognition of these inventions Lawrence received the highest award for artificial light photography from the Photographic Association of America in 1899. 9 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. Two life-threatening accidents in balloons in 1901 convinced him to look for another way of raising his cameras into the sky for aerial views. He invented a means of flying kites in trains and a way to keep the camera steady under varying wind conditions. This apparatus he called the 'captive airship' and with it succeeded in producing clear negatives of the order of 48 x 20 in in size from as high as 2000 ft. His aerial photographs of San Francisco after the earthquake and fire of 1906 caused a sensation wherever they were seen around the world. 10 It is clear that George R Lawrence was not simply a commercial photographer, he also had a great talent for inventiveness and innovation. 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'. He presented his plans and 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. 11 Two Zeiss patent lenses were especially made by the Bausch and Lomb Optical Company of Rochester, NY. 12 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. 13The amounts of materials used to construct the camera were truly prodigious. Natural cherry wood was used throughout for the frame and bed. 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 ¼ in thick. This light-proof construction required two bolts of wide rubber cloth, more than 40 gallons of cement, and 500 ft of whitewood to ensure rigidity. The heavy bellows was 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 in place on the camera, could be rolled back to uncover the glass plate just prior to exposure. It was lined with three thicknesses of light-proof material to prevent leaks while the plate was outside the camera. The wooden curtain contained about 80 ft2 of 3/8 in thick ash and was glued to the three layers by more than 10 gallons of cement. To ensure the smooth operation of the curtain, ball-bearing rollers were mounted every 2 in in the holder's grooves in which it slid. 14
The Cramer Company of St Louis manufactured the 8 x 4½ ft glass plates using its isochromatic emulsion. These were reputed 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. 15
After months of planning, building, and testing George R Lawrence stood by the lens of his mammoth creation, the moment had arrived. The tension of the occasion can be seen in his face and in those around him on the photograph that was taken to record the event. The roller curtain of the plate holder was retracted by his assistant at the rear of the camera and Lawrence removed the lens cap. Two-and-a-half minutes later he replaced the cap and the exposure was completed. It is very likely that the final abatement of tension did not occur until sometime later in the dark room when the crisp image of the train showed up on the glass plate. Only then could Lawrence be certain that he had solved yet another problem and, in the process, broken new ground in the evolving art and science of photography.
1. Times-Herald, 24 October 1900. THOMAS YANUL of Chicago provided a photocopy of a newspaper article entitled 'The Largest Photograph in the World'. It was one of several such articles pasted in a surviving scrapbook that had belonged to George R Lawrence. Unfortunately, the place of publication of the newspaper and the page number were missing, and attempts at determining these facts have proved to be unsuccessful.
2. G. J. CHARLTON, The Largest Photograph in the World of the Handsomest Train in the World, Chicago and Alton Railway, probably published in Chicago in 1900, text and photographs on 13 unnumbered pages. A copy was seen by me at the Chicago Historical Society.
3. Times-Herald, 24 October 1900.
4. P. R. Duis and G. E. HOLT, 'The fearless George Lawrence', Chicago Magazine (November 1978), 258-262.
5.Times-Herald, 24 October 1900.
6. Anonymous, 'George R. Lawrence biography', The Encyclopedia of Photography, Vol. 11, New York: Greystone Press, 1974, 1992.
7. H. H. SLAWSON, 'George R. Lawrence', The Complete Photographer, 6: 34 (1941), 2217-2221.
8. Anonymous, 'Photography by artificial light', The Inland Printer (December 1897), 367.
9.Times-Herald, 24 October 1900.
10. S. BAKER, 'The hitherto impossible in photography is our specialty', Smithsonian Air and Space (October/November 1988), 64-68.
11. Anonymous, 'The largest camera in the world', Scientific American, 84 (2 March 1901), 132.
12.Times-Herald, 24 October 1900.
13. G. J. CHARLTON, The Largest Photograph in the World of the Handsomest Train in the World.
14. G. J. CHARLTON, The Largest Photograph in the World of the Handsomest Train in the World.
15. H. H. SLAWSON, 'George R. Lawrence'.