He views the Valley in Panorama – Ben Porter

Reprinted by permission of Hannah Mitchell Writer, Charlotte Observer – July 23, 2003

Hickory – In a picture that people watchers could stare at for a long time, an Asheville photographer captured Hickory Motor Speedway in a way that makes the viewer feel like he’s there.

The panoramic shot shows fans circling the track on a bright day in the late 1990’s, recording the action from the viewpoint and with clarity: The woman blowing a bubble-gum bubble, the man scanning the track with his binoculars, the boy eating a hot dog.

The moment is comprehensive. Yet it’s more than moment. Photographer Ben Porter used an antique panoramic camera to take the picture and other shots around Catawba County. Because the rotating Cirkut camera has an exposure time of as many as 20 seconds, depending on the scope of the shot, it photographs a scene in progress. And it shows a wide view that people can’t see with their normal vision.

Porters pictures, commissioned by the Catawba County Historical Association as a record of major events and landmarks at a particular time, are on display at a Hickory coffee shop and will travel around the country. Some of the pictures in the show are more than 5 feet long.

Panoramas are wide-view pictures taken as a rotating camera scans the subject. Antique panoramic cameras were most widely used in the early 20th century, particularly for landscapes and large groups of people, said Fred Yake, a charter member of the International Association of Panoramic Photographers. Modern panoramic cameras offer the photographer more control and film options, he said.

Porter’s Catawba collection adds to the historical record of the fast-changing country, said Catawba County, said Catawba County Historical Association Vice President Robert Eades. He heard a public radio interview of Porter in the mid-1990’s about an exhibit of the photographer’s work and called Porter to ask if he would photograph some Catawba Country scenes. Porter agreed, taking more than a dozen pictures between 1996 and 2002. A $5,000 grant from the Catawba County Council for the Arts paid for his services.

“I think photographs are great records,” Eads said. “We tried to think about the sorts of things people would enjoy looking back on.”

Porter still takes the occasional panorama for the association. His Catawba scenes will likely be stored at the Catawba County Museum of History in Newton after the traveling exhibit ends, Eades said.

In addition to the speedway, Porter photographed the Old Soldier’s Reunion in Newton, Murray’s Mill and Balls Creek and Motts Grove campgrounds, among other scenes. He climbed into a cherry picker suspended from a Hickory fire truck to take a 360-degree picture of Union Square in downtown Hickory, staying up 45 minutes to get it right because the picker kept swaying.

Panoramas caught Porter’s interest when he saw some taken by Herbert Pelton in Porter’s hometown of Asheville in the early 20th century. He bought a Cirkut camera and re-photographed some of Pelton’s subjects for an exhibit at Asheville’s art museum.

The Cirkut camera sits on a tripod, slowly rotating to take in the scope of its subjects. The photographer winds up the camera with a key. A long spool of film unwinds as the camera rotates, and it can take an entire roll to photograph just one scene. Few of the Cirkut cameras survive, Porter said, and film for them is expensive and hard to find.

Cirkut cameras, so named because early panoramic photographers traveled in a circuit of Army camps photographing various battalions, can make better quality pictures than modern panoramic cameras because the photographs don’t require enlargement, Porter said.

Porter’s images have been popular at Taste Full of Beans coffee shop, their first stop in the traveling county tour. “This is our tenth time showing art, and this has by far been the most visited (exhibit),” said Taste Full of Beans owner D. W. Bentley. “People have come that don’t normally come to a coffee shot.. The style of pictures these are, people haven’t seen around here.” The exhibit moves to the county library in Newton in August.

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