St. Louis, sprawling laterally along the Mississippi, is a natural subject for panoramic photography.
A natural choice to take such a shot is Robert Bullivant, a photographer, master printer and visual preservationist who lives in Webster Groves and works from a studio he keeps in the City of St. Louis. Bullivant has the rare combination of equipment and skill required to do a high-quality panorama.
So when the Missouri History Museum undertook to mount an exhibit called "Panoramas of the City" (now open), it came calling at Bullivant's shop on Washington Avenue.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is a remarkable panorama of the St. Louis riverfront, taken circa 1903. The image was captured by an early 20th Century mechanical marvel called a Cirkut Camera that used extraordinarily large film — 8-inches wide (in this case), and typically 3-to-4 feet long. The camera itself is moved in an arc across the photographic field by a motorized tripod. At the same time, the film, powered by the same motor that turned the camera, is reeled from a magazine in the back of the camera across the aperture, to a take-up drum.
The result is a huge, high-resolution negative that is free of the distortion of perspective that is common to panoramic photos, bunching the image in the middle. The negative is too big for a conventional enlarger, so pictures were printed by laying it directly onto photo paper.
The museum used a digital file Bullivant made from the 1903 riverfront photo to create an eye-popping image, approximately 8 x 30 feet. It dominates the entrance way to the exhibit, leading visitors into a trove of old panoramas with subjects running from a huge crowd on Art Hill welcoming Charles Lindbergh home in 1927 to a chilling portrait of the damage done by a huge tornado that tore through the Central West End in September of the same year.
"We took these pieces of film and these prints and we captured them in very high resolution with our system," Bullivant said. "That enabled the museum then to make these very large prints and still maintain all the quality that the original has."
Bullivant used an Arca-Swiss 4-inch by 5-inch view camera with a high-quality lens (14 f-stops) and an 80-megapixel camera back. This produced an extremely detailed digitized record of the original photograph.
Bullivant also took his own skyline photo of the riverfront, traveling to East St. Louis to find a spot as close as possible to one from which the old photo was taken. He then digitally superimposed this new photograph over the old, producing a fascinating image of the Gateway Arch and several modern structures with a foreground of turn-of-the-century warehouses and paddlewheel riverboats.
The new skyline blends so well because there's so much left of the old, Bullivant said.
"What made me come up with the idea was the fact that the Eads Bridge is still there, the courthouse is there, the Old Cathedral is there. It's really interesting to have all this new skyline, but then you have all this old architecture that is still nearly 100 percent authentic."
Using the 1903 riverfront photo, Bullivant also designed the marquee for the exhibit, featured above the entrance and on promotional literature.
Bullivant uses his high-resolution cameras and super-size printers to preserve visual artifacts for museums and schools all over the nation. He also makes prints for private clients, along with several other commercial pursuits springing from his love and expertise in the visual arts.
But mostly he does as he pleases, which in his case has proven a good career strategy.
Take motorcycles, for instance.
"I had a passion for motorcycles. I'd taken these really beautiful pictures of some motorcycles called Ducati, with some painting I had done of Leonardo di Vinci's work studio. It was really a promotion for my work, but a friend of mine suggested that I send all this to Ducati in Italy."
He did so, fully expecting to get back – at best – a polite "thanks, but no-thanks." Instead, "they were 'like wow this is really amazing, can we work with you?'"
That started a lucrative relationship with Ducati and its parent company in Italy. Bullivant (and his family) have traveled to 60 different countries, photographing bikes for Ducati and its sister company, MV Augusta, and their parent, Tamburini.
"This is something where I'm not necessarily finding something somebody else wants me to shoot; these are my ideas," Bullivant said.
See more of Bullivant's collaboration with the Missouri History Museum at the free exhibit "Panoramas of the City," on display at the museum in Forest Park through Aug. 12, 2018.