Panoramas are all about spectacle, and the biggest spectacle in New-York Historical’s current exhibition Panoramas: The Big Picture is Claude Samton’s 1986 photomosaic of Manhattan’s Canal St. An immersive work that runs the whole length of one of our galleries, Canal Street is made up of about 2,000 individual photographs that Samton shot and then composed into a single, arresting mosaic that gives visual life to one of New York’s busiest, liveliest streets.
It’s so large, we can’t even show all of it at once: The full piece consists of two 48-foot-long sections that cover every inch of both sides of Canal in 1986, from 6th Ave. to Centre St. (For the exhibition, we’re showing two sections of one side of the street mounted one on top of the other.) Even in this partial state, what Canal Street reveals are moments—and movement—in time, with hot-dog vendors, bicyclists, blue skies, idling taxis, delivery vans, and rushing pedestrians all playing their role in the final piece. You can spend hours looking at it and still not see it all (though we encourage you to try!)
Samton still lives and works in New York, and he spoke to us recently about how he conceived of and created such a massive project. An architect, Samton started taking pictures in the 1980s and soon hit upon the photomosaic as a form that could capture the teeming life around him. “I thought this was an interesting way to go beyond a single photo,” he says. “Henri Cartier-Bresson talked about ‘the decisive moment’ in photography. This went beyond the decisive moment—this is many moments.”
So, you’re a successful architect working in New York when you start making these huge photomosaics. How did that shift happen?
It was because of my work as an architect. It got me to see whole aspects of the street and the city. My firm had a project to do a series of photographs of storefronts on 6th Avenue—I think it was a study for the city planning department. Afterwards, we put them together, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s interesting.’ You could put this whole scene together, not with a single photo, but a whole series of photos. And that got me into doing street scenes. I ended up working on this kind of technique for about 20 years pretty solidly. I let a lot of the architecture go, actually. This is more fun!
I lived in Soho, and I would go down to Canal St. periodically to see all these wonderful hardware and electronics stores. There was so much going on, as opposed to some of the uptown streets that are fancier or whatever the word is. I’ve since photographed other places, but Canal was the first one that really excited me.
Tell us about the process—how did you manage to shoot it with such detail?
I walked along the center line in the middle of the street and just photographed. I think I was crazy! Trucks and cars were racing by, and I was immune because I was behind the camera. I used a Minolta Maxim with a telephoto lens, so I got close up with pretty sharp images. I probably was there a half a dozen times at least, over a period of two months, and it was usually around noon or early afternoon on a sunny day. I would photograph a section of the block and number the rolls of film. Back at the studio, I’d mount the prints on a table top and put them together with drafting tape. Sometimes I would cut the prints, but mostly I’d just use the whole photograph, moving it around, almost like putting a puzzle together. I wasn’t always totally accurate—I might take people walking on one block and have them on another block to make it more interesting. Then, I’d have my assistants use archival rubber cement to mount them.
Aside from moving people around, did you take any other creative liberties?
There are probably 300 or 400 separate photos of the sky, but of course, I didn’t take that many. I would take maybe two light blue, two medium, and two dark and then take them to the printer and say, “I want 50 prints of this and 75 of that,” and he would look at me like I was crazy, because they were just blue. People also ask me about the strip of white skywriting—I made that bigger than it really was. One of the things you can do in this process is build on what you see: Sometimes there’s a piece of a car, and sometimes pieces of two separate cars together, to give that sense of movement.
Watch a video that travels the length of Canal Street:
You made the piece in separate panels to make transporting it easier. How did you first exhibit something that big?
The first place I showed it was in my loft on a diagonal: one side was the north side and one was the south, so you were walking along Canal St. Then, my first show of it was at the OK Harris Gallery which used to be on West Broadway. They put it on the corner so you had half of it on one wall and then went around the corner. At the opening, there was a guy there who approached me, and he said, “You have me in that photo! I’m a vendor.” And he wanted to get paid. So I said, “What I can do is just cut you out and put someone else in there.” He just walked away.
That brings up a good point: Did any of the people you captured in the photographs say anything while you were working?
Nobody noticed! Nobody noticed. I could’ve been dressed up as a clown, and I don’t think anybody would’ve noticed. That’s the real thing in New York City.
Come see Canal Street and much more at the New-York Historical exhibition Panoramas: The Big Picture, on view until Dec. 6.
Written by Kerrie Mitchell, Content Editor