Panoramic Knoxville, uncropped

by Jack Neely

Hanging on a downtown wall are several photographs I'd never seen before last week. The one thing they all have in common is that they're all peculiarly long. You notice that even before you see the images in the pictures.

A black horse-drawn hearse on Broadway turns into Old Gray Cemetery as hundreds in Edwardian top hats and derbies watch from the curb. Afloat in the big pond in Chilhowee Park is an aquatic baseball game: the pitcher, on a raft, throwing to a batter, on another raft, while fielders, on their own rafts, wait expectantly in the deep outfield. Another wide shot, this one of an industrial factory; look close and you see what the factory was producing: lined up on a long conveyor belt high above the ground are dozens of fresh-made coffins. A carnival on East Jackson: Japanese acrobats, "Old Plantation" minstrel performers, a brass band, a horned Satan in a dark skin-tight suit—all posing proudly for the picture.

They're all in an exhibit of panoramic photography that opened last month at the Museum of East Tennessee History on Market Street. Not all of the photos in the exhibit are quite that provocative, but they're all worth a good look. The Thompson brothers, famous for their photography of early 20th-century Knoxville, were also local pioneers of a new invention, a camera that took wide-angle shots—so wide, in fact, that they take in absolutely everything in a full circular sweep and sometimes even repeat an image on opposite ends of the same negative. They did it with an early Cirkut camera, and they've got one on display there, looking a lot like any old big black-box camera on a tripod, except for the 360-degree track it wears around its neck.

The Thompsons packed up their fancy camera and took it all over East Tennessee, from Kingsport to Gatlinburg—but the subject that seemed to inspire them most was the one scene in East Tennessee that's least predictable, least comprehensible, the one that changes most with every different perspective: downtown Knoxville. From the rooftop of Miller's, from the rooftop of the old Henson Building, from the UT Hill...the Thompsons photographed Knoxville like forensic examiners, as if they never quite figured the place out. The longest photograph on display here, taken from the top of Miller's Department Store around 1915, is eight-and-a-half feet long.

They'd taken plenty of pictures of downtown before, of course: You're likely to see Thompson photographs of Gay Street in restaurants, along with an occasional shot of the old Market House or the courthouse. These panoramas are different—partly, of course, due to the technology itself that forces curves on straight streets and, in a couple of shots, makes familiar Gay Street appear to swoop off in different directions. Looking at one of them, you might notice that two similar Victorian buildings appear to be more than a mile away from each other with a strange maze of curved streets and buildings in between, like a Dr. Seuss city in black and white. Then you notice the two are actually the same building on Gay Street. You wonder whether Einstein was coming up with his space-bending theories at about the time Cirkut cameras were making the rounds.

Another feature that makes panoramic photography remarkable was perhaps unintended: In those rooftop 360's, you can't really frame a shot, you can't crop anything out, you can't hide anything. And 90 years ago there were some parts of town you just didn't photograph. There were indeed palatial mansions and ornate department stores downtown, but there were also lots of other things no one ever deliberately took a picture of: billboards and broken fences and unpainted shacks strung with clotheslines. In a 180-degree shot of UT's old hill, the foreground is more striking than the college which was presumably the intended subject. Around the vicinity of what's now Circle Park and Stadium Drive, looming much larger than UT, are a string of unpainted shacks. From clotheslines hanging between the shacks are homely clothes, many of them with obvious tears and ragged edges, rags that hardly seem worth the washing.

In one close-up panorama, the C.B. Atkins house looks like a hilltop manor, perhaps the center of a country estate. But there it is in another panoramic shot peeping out of a wider shot with about 200 other buildings, crowded in the middle of a cluttered landscape that was somehow both rural and urban. (Was early 20th-century Knoxville a serene, suburban place, or a dirty industrial mill town? Was it truly an urban city, or just an extremely crowded Appalachian rural area? This exhibit supplies the answer: It was all those things, at once, all folded in with themselves somehow, here in the very same panoramic photographs.)

Mr. Thompson probably didn't guess that when people looked at his pictures they'd pore over the billboards, puzzle over the advertisements on them. On Union Avenue is a huge round billboard on the side of the building that's now called the Pembroke: It says Ballard's Obelisk, with a picture that looks like a Victorian image of ancient Egypt. On the roof of a run-down house in what was later the World's Fair site is an ad for Old Virginia Cheroots. In this one picture are rustic creek-side cabins, commercial buildings emerging from the trees, the extravagant Victorian homes of Fort Sanders, the ivy-covered halls of old UT, the then-pastoral hills of South Knoxville.

You overhear strangers' reactions. Downtown no longer has this sort of beauty, they say, looking at a grand residence. But downtown no longer has lean-to villages, either. Many of these photos date from about 1920, when a popular travel writer remarked that variegated Knoxville was the "most peculiar" city she had ever seen. We already knew that, of course. But if you don't see enough in your neighborhood today to know what she was talking about, have a look at this exhibit.