At its beginning, photography required innovators. Clever problem solvers envisioned the next innovations and then invented the solutions that would make those innovations possible.
One of these was Chicago’s John Carbutt, who invented—among other things—the celluloid film that made motion pictures possible. Carbutt, of course, also photographed Minnehaha Falls on several occasions in the 1860s. Another Minnehaha photographer who was a prominent photographic inventor and who worked at the turn of the last century was another Chicagoan: George Raymond Lawrence perfected aerial photography. It was quite a feat. Airplanes had not yet been invented.
George Lawrence’s studio had the motto: “The Hitherto Impossible in Photography Is Our Specialty.” He began his inventive career with what was called “flashlight photography.” In the time before flashbulbs, he used chemical light explosions placed all over large rooms and set off simultaneously to illuminate the shot. He invented a sort of bag to capture the smoke of the explosions, thereby keeping the room pleasant after the photograph was taken. (This also stopped him from burning off his eyebrows, mustache, and hair, as happened quite often in the early experimental days.) He was famed for taking pictures of large crowds like banquets and legislatures and so on. He photographed the Minnesota House and Senate in 1901 and again in 1905.
Another of George Lawrence’s notable achievements was building giant cameras which he used for his large crowd pictures. The giant camera in the above newspaper photograph looks huge. It had an eight-inch lens and took pictures measuring 26 x 38 inches. But compared to Lawrence’s “world’s largest camera,” this is nothing. The world’s largest camera took 15 men to move it around, and the lens cap was almost as big as a manhole cover.
This camera was built under contract with a railroad to photograph their entire train in one huge exposure. The photo was submitted to the Paris Exposition of 1900, and was declared a fake: No one could take an 8-foot-long photograph. The exposition head dispatched the French Consul General from New York to Lawrence’s studio in Chicago to examine the apparatus. The photograph was proved authentic and won “The Grand Prize of the World for Photographic Excellence.”
Lawrence was famous for his panoramas, and these are his lasting legacy. He would use any tall building, or he would build scaffolds and towers to raise his camera high enough for the shot. Here was the inspiration for his invention of aerial photography. He began taking his pictures from tethered balloons. In June of 1901, while photographing the Armour stockyards in Chicago, his balloon escaped and he famously fell. The rope netting surrounding his balloon torn, the balloon broke free, and he came crashing down on the platform he had substituted for the basket. His fall was broken by the telegraph wires. He fell more than 50 feet (or 200 or 300 feet: stories varied) and was unhurt but for a few cuts, probably from all the broken glass plates. Unfortunately he needed that balloon for a shot the next day at a horse race. No replacement was available. He turned out a crew of men and built a 100-foot-tall wooden tower in just five hours. He got the shot. He was that kind of “get-it-done” innovator.
Even after his near-disastrous fall, he continued his bird’s eye photography from balloons, coming to Minnesota in 1901 and 1902 to shoot aerial pictures of both of the Twin Cities, as well as Litchfield, Hutchinson, and St. Cloud. He travelled with his own hydrogen gas plant, bringing along 4 tons of sulphuric acid and 3 tons of iron filings. When combined these would give off the 25,000 cubic feet of hydrogen gas needed to fill his 80-foot-tall “bag.” These large aerial panoramas of towns, 3 feet or so in length, were intended for local people to send to their far-off friends and family who could not make the trip to see their Minnesota homes.
By 1901, this “balloonograph” photography was his predictable and practiced art. When, on August 14 of that year, Lawrence photographed Litchfield Minn. from 2,000 feet up, it was considered the first-ever photograph of an entire town in one exposure. Lawrence, ever the inventive perfectionist, saw that this technique would not give the best results for a photograph of Minneapolis or St. Paul. So he left Minnesota for a few weeks, returning to his Chicago studio where he quickly invented a panoramic camera better suited to the task.
The new device used a “sliding” or “traveling” film rather than a glass plate. Perhaps he used fellow-Chicagoan John Carbutt’s celluloid film. The new camera enabled Lawrence to take a panorama of the whole city. Apparently, shooting pictures from a balloon onto even quite-large glass plates was insufficient to get a good view of our larger cities. Not to be outdone, his assistant rigged up a way to improve communications from the ground with Lawrence a half mile up in “Cloudland.” He interwove a copper telephone wire into the anchoring cable so that they could talk. Lawrence seized on the idea of telephoning his wife while high in the sky. The general manager of the phone company allowed as how that had never been done before, but that there was no reason it could not work. A few days later, his wife telephoned him to announce the birth of their second son.
For all the hoopla of the above story–and it got days and days of coverage in the newspaper–no example of any Minneapolis or St. Paul panorama has yet turned up. Lawrence did attempt to photograph Stillwater, Minn. a short time later, but he lost the balloon to damage in a windstorm. The next year, in 1902, he took panoramas of Stillwater and of the Minnesota State Fair by constructing 150-foot-tall towers from which to take the pictures.
In 1903, Lawrence was again in Minneapolis, attempting to take a panorama of the city from a tethered balloon. Because the balloon had to be completely motionless while the plate was exposed, there were many false starts and failed attempts when taking these sky-high panoramic photos. These failures lead his always-inventive mind to launching cameras tethered to smaller balloons. With complicated stabilization constructions, and a smaller balloon presenting a smaller surface to be blown around, he expected more success. It wasn’t long, however, before he invented his kite photography technique called the Captive Air Ship.
Lawrence’s most famous pictures were taken with cameras suspended by kites, and were images of the remains of the city of San Francisco, Calif. after the earthquake on April 18, 1906. Lawrence could fly a train of as many as 17 kites, all separated by piano wire. These would lift his camera with its elaborate stabilization device, and he would take the picture from the ground. His shots of San Francisco were taken from this string of kites, the Captive Air Ship, from over 2,000 feet in the air. They were not the only panoramas taken of the disaster, but their exquisite clarity of detail made them a prized evidence of the catastrophe, and he sold them for $125 each. In today’s terms, they brought him well over a quarter of a million dollars.
It’s not known on which of his many trips to Minnesota that Lawrence photographed Minnehaha Falls. His panorama of Minnehaha was entered into the Library of Congress on March 7, 1906, just a few weeks before the catastrophe in California. The picture is clearly not March in Minnesota, however. With leaves on some but not all trees, it’s pretty obviously mid-May or September or October. Lawrence was in Minnesota in March of 1905, but that’s also the wrong time of year. Perhaps this was taken during his many prolonged visits in 1901 and 1902. But why would Lawrence wait so long to copyright his image?
For all of his innovations with balloons and kites and towers and cameras, the Lawrence panorama of Minnehaha Falls shows none of that inventiveness. The photo was taken at creek level by someone standing alongside the creek, or on a bridge. Perhaps he used the “traveling film” camera he built in 1901. The park board’s boulder wall is the only example of the built environment in the picture, and it was in place in the early 1900s. The exact date of this photograph is not certain.
The only known copy of the Lawrence panorama of Minnehaha Falls is held by the Library of Congress, and the scan they have on-line is frankly terrible. But it is easy to find copies of the panorama, and even colorized copies. Lawrence apparently sold the rights to the image to Chicago’s V. O. Hammon postcard company, which reprinted it in vast quantities.
For all his success, Lawrence had a remarkable failure when attempting to photograph animals in Africa from a balloon. That story can be found on-line. Lawrence also had an “interesting” personal life, with years of involvement with religious Dowieites; his own kidnapping of his sons; his first wife’s belief in the “Happiness” cult (she said it “fairly oozed out of her”–a charming if bawdy image); his photographic company’s bankruptcy, and his new successful career as an aviation designer. But none of that is about the Minnehaha panorama story. That quite ordinary photo represents a sadly missed chance for an aerial photograph of the falls by his era’s top practitioner of the skill. Today, we are fortunate to have drones, digital video, and the Internet and so we can see the falls from “Cloudland.”