Staff at the Municipal Archives continue to digitize the historical collections including paper records, books, motion pictures, maps, plans, and photographs. My current assignment is the Queens Borough President photograph collection. The thousands of fascinating pictures includes a series of panoramic images. They were taken mostly during the 1920s and 1930s by the Topographical Bureau in the Borough President’s office, under the direction of the Engineer in Charge, Charles Underhill Powell.
Powell’s tenure coincided with a time of rapid change in Queens. A borough that had long been mostly sparsely populated farmland was quickly becoming a diverse urban landscape. This required a drastic overhaul of the borough’s infrastructure, and engineers like Powell went out to survey, document, design, and plan.
The photographers generally used standard 8 x 10 inch sheet film, a format still popular for the high resolution it provides. Sometimes, though, an 8 x 10 negative just wasn’t good enough. In these situations, the photographers turned to what is known as a banquet camera. Originally intended for photographing large groups of people, the wide negatives (usually either 7x17” or 12x20”) offered a lot of space to squeeze an entire crowd or banquet hall into one frame. Banquet cameras fell out of favor when medium format and other roll film formats were invented, allowing more flexibility and ease of use in event photography. But landscape and architectural photographers adopted the banquet camera for the precision, resolution, and wide angle of view it offered.
The Queens panoramic negatives (which are all 7x17”) present a digitization challenge. Because of their width, they cannot be captured at high resolution in one shot with an overhead camera and they are too fragile for a flatbed scanner. There is an alternative: stitching. I photographed each negative in three shots, which partially overlap with each other. I then ran a Photoshop script to stitch them together. This has worked surprisingly well, even on the most deteriorated negatives. These advancing technologies and workflows allow us to make these beautiful images, which document an important period in New York City history, available to the public.