Behind the scenes at a Cirkut shoot

Discussion in 'Panoramic Cameras and Accessories' started by DougGrosjean, Nov 2, 2008.

  1. DougGrosjean

    DougGrosjean Member

    May 23, 2006
    Medium Format
    Hi all,

    I *think* this is the correct forum for this.

    Back in August 2008, I attended the 25th anniversary of the Aerostich company outside Duluth, Minnesota; for customers and business partners.

    Aerostich manufactures a line of Goretex-Cordura laminate motorcycle riding gear, which is beloved by high-mile motorcyclists. Aerostich also puts out a catalog with all kinds of neat & functional moto-gear, such as titanium tire irons, titanium camping cookware, electrically heated gear, camping gear, helmets, books, videos. I'm a customer, and they carry a book I've written on motorcycling, so I'm a vendor to them as well.

    The event was held at a ski resort outside Duluth, Spirit Mountain, looking east over Duluth and Lake Superior.

    As part of the celebrations, various authors were invited to present on topics they were knowledgable on, so I was invited to talk about motorcycling with children (the subject of my book). Since my high-mile motorcycle (a 1992 BMW R100gs with 90,000 miles, for those curious) was down with a transmission failure, my girlfriend and I were going to drive from Detroit to Duluth in her car. Since we were going by car, we had lots of room to carry camera gear, so I offered to the organizers an old-fashioned Cirkut photo of the event.

    Eventually, we came to a mutuall benefical agreement regarding who owned what rights, how the photo would be composed, when it would be shot, how it would be sold afterward... assuming it turned out at all. I was honest about the camera being 90 years old and my experience with it limited at that point. But I had practiced a lot, had done a small steam tractor group, and was confident I could do the shot, so it was agreed.

    I recruited 3 rally attendees with drafting and photography skills to help me set-up the shot. This was absolutely critical, as we had only 15 minutes to arrange approx. 1,000 people, and a total of 20 minutes to get the shot. This was not negotiable, as my Cirkut shot was a last-minute thing slid into the event.

    My assistants were fantastic. We got together about 1.5 hours prior to the shoot, and using drafting skills we laid out 2 arcs on the ground using yellow rope, one at R50' and another at R60'. Goal was to keep subjects between those two arcs, starting with people seated with their backs parallel to the R50' rope. We arranged some vintage motorcycles in the middle of the photo, and the most experienced photographer among the assistants would arrange the Aerostich people, and hopefully VIPs, there. The other two assistants would arrange people on the wings, one taking the RH side, other the LH. We also put some motorcyles on the ends of the scene, hoping to have them as bookends, limiting the angle to about 120 degrees.

    While assistants "drew" the arcs on the ground, and found motorcyles we could use from attendees, I set up the Cirkut camera. Leveled the tripod, loaded it with my last roll of Verichrome Pan circa 1978, and about the time each of us finished the doors to the ski chalet opened behind us and people began to stream out. Lots and lots of people. My assistants arranged everybody as directed, I continued with fine adjustments to the Cirkut. It seemed each time I looked up, the number of people had doubled, and another 5 minutes had gone by, and now there were hundreds and hundreds of people out there....

    One thousand people doesn't sound like so much when written down, but when I looked up for the final time at 4:15 PM, and saw the full crowd in an arc around me, stretching about 150 degrees, and the motorcycle bookends had disappeared among the crowd (like ants on a candy bar) - it was both exhilarating and terrifying. The yellow ropes we had planned to remove had disappeared in the crowd, too. Then I looked behind me, and probably a half-dozen photographers and one videographer with a shoulder-mounted camera as big as my Cirkut, were filming me, taking the Cirkut photo. My assistants had blended into the crowd they'd posed, as instructed, and suddenly the show was all mine.

    I told the group (loudly and briefly) that we have *ONE* piece of film - that's it. There is no second chance, so we want to be sure everything goes well. I told them that the camera was a 1919 Cirkut for doing long panoramic group photos, that it rotated while pulling film past a vertical slit in perfect synch with rotation, and that I'd be glad to talk all afternoon about it *after* the shot. But for now, it's 90 years old, and needs a warmup to loosen up the grease. So we'd do a warm-up lap, going through all the motions as if it were the real thing, so they'd know exactly what to expect. And then we'd actually take the photo, just as we'd practiced in the warm-up lap.

    I told them to fix their hair now, then stand or sit up straight, and to hold still as the camera comes around. I'd loudly count 3-2-1-GO! and then the camera would rotate, taking about 30-40 seconds to photograph all of them.

    I wound the camera, loudly said "3-2-1-GO!!!!!" and started the camera, but with the film advance clutch disengaged, so no film was used. When it got to the end of its sweep, I turned it off, explaining that they did great, and the next one was for real.

    I brought the camera back to its starting point, making sure gear engagement was just right. Then I wound it again, and asked if everbody was ready. One fellow said "I'm not!!!" I grinned and said "Tough - we're taking it anyway! Ready? 3-2-1-GO!!!!!"

    And everything worked as it was intended. The Cirkut in front of me buzzed as it rotated around. People smiled. Cameras behind me clicked, and the big video-camera whirred.

    After that, I took two more quick photos with a Kodak Panoram and color film, but since people had spread beyond the motorcycle bookends, I knew that was futile. A digital photographer covering the event had asked me prior to the shoot if he could take a series of digitals as a Plan B, that we could stitch together, and that sounded great to me, so he did.

    And then it was done. I told the group they did GREAT!... thanked them for their time, and they were free to go and have a good time.

    The Cirkut is an extremely mechanical unit, and I've seen that it appeals to gearheads like me. As expected, probably 2 dozen people surrounded me, peppering me with questions, looking over the gear, asking more questions. Cameras clicked, and I've seen many pics of me on the Net in the days since, taken moments after that Cirkut shot, and I'm grinning ear-to-ear, grinning so hard my face about hurt. Finally, an Aerostich staff member helped me disassemble the camera and carry it back to the car, so I could go on to the next rally event, a meet-n- greet of the presenters and VIPs.

    At the hotel in Duluth that night, one of the vendors told me in the parking lot "Hey, Doug! I'm in it twice...!!! I'm on the left, then I ran around, and made it before the camera got there. I did it!!!"

    My heart sank - I worried even more now that the photo might not turn out.

    In the hotel room unable to sleep, I mixed up the chemistry needed to process the film. Brought it up to temperature, arranged my gear, and realized that I'd used the wrong f-stop scale when taking the shot, underexposing the negative by about 2 steps. Pondered that a bit, took the development time from 10 minutes to 15 minutes, and did the deed.

    Result: Negative a little thin, but usable.

    Next morning, at the rally site, I got to show the negative to the organizers. People were thrilled; it was a hit. The negative measures 10" x 72", and with the 24" lens a 6' figure is about 3" tall on the film at 50' distance. Organizers identified people on the negative, and I got a lot of "Attaboys" and pats on the back.

    When I got home, I scanned the Cirkut neg, and stitched it together in Photoshop. I also stitched together the color digital photos from the Plan B camera / photographer. Both photos turned out well. Both are unique to themselves, on close inspection.

    The Aerostich company is offering both for sale in their catalog. The ad copy they wrote is wonderful, and you can view it here:

    To see some segments of the Cirkut and the digital pans, you can either click on the color digital sample at the URL above, or click on the URLs below:

    Center third, color stitched digital:

    Overall size, both digital and Cirkut photos together - this one shows the size perfectly:

    Detailed areas of the stitched digital photo - the RH detailed area, the red-haired lady in purple is my girlfriend Sharon:

    Detailed center, Cirkut photo:

    I learned a lot, doing that shot. It was just about the ideal Cirkut session, with organizers beating the drum and really promoting it ahead of time and throughout the event, a great setting, and good light. There were many famous and infamous people in the crowd - authors and riders and motorcycle company executives and business partners and relatives and average Joes and Janes from all walks of life, so anybody that had a good time over that weekend has many reasons to buy a copy of that print as a memento. There were 9 motorcycles, 3 dogs, dozens of children (they got the front row), and hundreds of Mr. Happy hand-puppets. In the color photo, two dirtbikes can be seen wheelying up the ski slope behind on the left. Oh, and the double-ender guy - he was successful. But it's subtle, because he's not on the extreme ends, but about 10' from each end.

    It was the most organized shot I've ever done. The most people. The most meticulously planned - even though the subjects are all so casual. The most technically difficult. The scariest, and the most exhilarating. And since it turned out well, it was a huge feeling of accomplishment.

    When it's all said and done, the organizers and myself and Bob Stokstad (the digital photographer), have produced unique work that we're proud of. I hope the rally attendees are as pleased as we are with the results.

    Mostly what I feel now, seeing the results online, is pride and joy and a feeling of having had a lot of fun doing the deed - a tremendous amount of fun.
  2. David A. Goldfarb

    David A. Goldfarb Moderator Staff Member Moderator

    Sep 7, 2002
    Honolulu, Ha
    Large Format
    Great writeup! Congrats on the shoot.

    I just saw a Cirkut photo last night, by chance, hanging as decor in a restaurant called Georgia BBQ on the Lower East Side in Manhattan.
  3. OP

    DougGrosjean Member

    May 23, 2006
    Medium Format
    Thanks, David. After one shot that big, it seems a photo of just 200-300 would be easy. Probably not, but it seems that way.

    The Cirkut photos are everywhere, once you start looking. Those old-tyme Cirkut photographers were prolific and productive....
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 2, 2008