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George R. Lawrence and the Mammoth Camera

Posted on 25 April 2016

I was looking at the photos of Ian Ruhter, a photographer who works with traditional wet plate methods using a giant camera, and thought about the largely extinct use of humongous cameras to capture big images. When I was a kid, a store downtown had a real monster of a camera, it could likely hold a 2 foot by 2 foot plate.

One of the innovators of these big cameras was photographer George R. Lawrence. His largest Camera, called the Mammoth, was constructed in 1900 on commission by the Chicago & Alton Railway to photograph their new Luxury Train. At the time, to capture such a large object in detail, a very large camera was needed. The Mammoth was able to hold an 8'x4.5' photo plate, which successfully took an enormous photo of the train. Photos of Lawrence with the giant camera have actually ended up being much more well-known than the photo of the train.

Perhaps Lawrence's most famous photograph is a panorama of San Francisco, taken just days after the 1906 Earthquake. He invented a 40 pound panoramic camera that he hung from a series of kites. The shutter was tripped by sending an electrical current up a piece of piano wire to the camera. It's easy today to forget how mind blowing a large arial photo would have been in 1906. The Wright Brothers had taken their first feeble flight just four years before. Lawrence had attempted photography from a hot air balloon, but had fallen from his roost and reportedly plummeted 200 feet to the ground before giving up on that idea. 

His famous photo of San Francisco was a huge success, appearing in newspapers across the country. He sold large prints for $125 each, ultimately making around $15,000 (about $400,000 today). After a few years of honing his kite photos, he transitioned into aeronautics. By the end off his life he had patented close to 100 inventions in the aviation field.  

Get a close up, hi-res look at his San Fran photo here.

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