T h e   P a n o r a m a c i s t   O n   R e c o n n a i s s a n c e   A t   A n t i e t a m
The images you see here are the result of an interest in panoramic photography that goes back over 35 years. As a student in the School of Architecture at the University of Minnesota, one often began a project by going out to a hypothetical building site with a 35mm camera and taking a series of sequential snapshots. Then, with a little scotch tape and the exercise of an ability not exceeding that of laying dominos end to end, a panorama would emerge.

After two decades of dealing with real buildings on real sights, vacations to exotic places, scotch tape, exacto blades, band aids and some unsatisfactory experiments with early stitching software, I began to look at the real thing. With the help of Minnesota photographer Chris Faust, I began to research real panoramic cameras.

In 1996 I took my first true panoramic photograph with the Hulcherama panoramic camera. This very first effort was a bewildering 360 degree blur of trees and boulders near Devil's Den on The Gettysburg National Battlefield.......but it was the start.

Over a period of 15 years I honed a tenuous professionalism with this subtle, high-strung camera which, when it was good, was very good indeed. More recently, the digital revolution changed photography from something that was once akin to an arcane conjuring art to one that was instantly accessible to anyone with an ability point and click……….at once seductive and irresistible. Hence the more recent images taken over the last 5 years and shown on these pages have left the old analogue days of 120 film and the Hulcherama in the rear view mirror.

From the beginning, there was always the question. How should a 360 degree panorama be displayed? The experience of art is a matter of taste and mystery. Experiential choices for the panorama are many. There was the historical option: in the round. Enticing as this is, the viewer remains confined to seeing only what the cone of vision allows at a given moment. And of course, it can be impractically and absurdly expensive. Another option, rotational computer software, allows the sedentary viewer to spin the image itself on the computer screen. But like the traditional in the round experience, one only perceives what the physical geometry of staring straight ahead permits.

These limitations are, fortunately, solved with remarkable simplicity. Lay the thing flat. Just unroll the full 360 degrees and lay it flat. It allows the viewer to see the entire 360 degrees at once. No amount of turning one's body through space or spinning the image on the computer screen allows that.

This instantaneous experience of the full 360 degree environment reveals subject matter in total context. More correctly, the context itself becomes subject matter………..a broader and more inclusive subject matter well beyond that provided by the traditional photographic frame. Previously unseen objects become essential elements of meaning and interpretation. Previously hidden forms and shadows lend heretofore unknown compositional structure.

Initially in this adventure, I was going to be the new interpreter of the American Civil War, a sort of historical messiah laying open concealed truths about truly historic landscapes where the fate of a divided union was played out......if play is the word. I took dozens of panoramas of the battlefields. The plan was to incorporate the panoramas into an interpretive matrix of military maps and text. In fact, my first published works manifesting just such a vision are three posters of panoramas and maps of Gettysburg and Antietam.

Time changes things. Today the maps and text are gone for the most part........ other than to give basic information about the where and the when. 

What remains is the revolution and evolution of the oeuvre in the directions of the compass you see herein.................

James O. Phelps | Antietam National Battlefield | James O. Phelps | 360 Degree Panoramic Photograph
A b o u t