Sunday, January 1, 2012

No Fear of Heights (Part 1)

One of Goldbeck's temporary towers
(Photo authorship unknown)
He stood in a large military parade field in the unrelenting sunlight of south Texas. Over two hundred feet above him he could barely make out the small platform to which he would climb. Grabbing the rails of the scaffold's ladder and placing his left foot firmly on the first rung, he began his trip skyward. Thousands of uniformed men around the base of the scaffold murmured and pointed as they watched him deftly make his way  into the blue summer sky. As he reached the peak of the scaffold and stood atop it a thunderous cheer went up from the throng of soldiers far below.

Eugene Omar Goldbeck was not a man of ordinary thoughts or pursuits. He was baptized into the fellowship of serious photography at the tender age of about nine, having taken his first auspicious photograph– a candid shot of President William McKinley on the streets of San Antonio. Even as a professional photographer his sights were not set on the commonplace. He was not content to capture the small, the usual, or the mundane. Gene was always on the lookout for the larger picture.

Gene was born into the waning years of the nineteenth century and came of age in the brand-new twentieth century. This was a period of incredible development and ferment in the arts and sciences of photography– not unlike the photographic climate of today. Gene's inventive nature and adventurous spirit were perfectly suited to this vibrant photographic milieu.

E. O. Goldbeck (as he became known professionally) entered the day-to-day life of a working photographer in the U. S. Army during the years of WWI. He distinguished himself as an archivist of the preparations for war– training camps, the gathering of equipment, and the graduation of trained troops. The graduating classes of men who had completed basic training were large, and Goldbeck realized that the use of panoramic equipment would allow him to capture an entire class in a single pose and photograph. His use of this unusual photographic format would serve him well, not only to simply capture large groups of men, but as a whole new medium, quite distinct from conventional photography. This would be a new canvas, his canvas, to paint images never before dreamed by other men.

Air Training Command, Lackland Air Base,
© E.O. Goldbeck, 1947
Although Goldbeck would accomplish enduring images of incredible scope with his Cirkut cameras over several decades, his most unique addition to the pantheon of great photographs was his singular invention of composing images built of living men. Having an almost unlimited pallet of tens of thousands of soldiers waiting to obey his orders, he developed an exacting mathematical and logistical process that painted immense military logos and insignias across the open landscape of south Texas. These insignias were so large– composed of thousands of individual men (over 21,000 men in the photo to the left)– they could only be appreciated and recorded by cameras a hundred or more feet in the sky. This day, he would climb the highest scaffold of his career (212 feet) and record the greatest artistic assemblage of men ever composed.


The family of E. O. Goldbeck still operates the same panoramic-based photographic business that he began in San Antonio, Texas so many years ago. To this day, students and faculty in San Antonio schools still look forward to having their corporate image recorded by the rotating Goldbeck cameras.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good article and a great photograph by Goldbeck. Thanks Bill. As I was reading the article, my attention went back and forth from the article to a signed Goldbeck panorama, The Alamo Complex dated 10-26-1918, that is in my study. What a great picture and what a great photographer.