Photographer steps back in time to capture panoramic views of vanishing landscapes
I met Richard Malogorski when I spied his two Airedales, Arlo and Sherman, in the camper bed of his truck coming back from a walk last winter at The Glen Helen Nature Preserve, where he goes almost everyday. I followed him to a gas station and we struck up a conversation about our shared passion for Airedale Terriers, which led to the discovery that Malogorski is also a photographer who works with a very unusual panoramic camera, capturing large scape images of rural American landscapes.
Several months later on a warm summer afternoon, I visited Maogorski’s house in Bath Township across from the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to learn more about his work. Framed photographs were stacked up against one wall, covered in plastic sleeves. These are prints from his exhibition The Vanishing American Landscape, which was held at the Southern Ohio Museum in Portsmouth.
As his Ariedales Arlo and Sherman look on, Malogorski slides the protective covers down the long frames, one after another, revealing starkly beautiful black and white images of rural Americana.
“This is Bob’s Repair in Wauneta, Nebraska,” Malogorski says looking at an image of an old style repair shop. “This is something that is basically disappearing. These were fairly common, mainly in rural areas. They would repair tractors, equipment, machinery, and make things for farmers. The reason they are disappearing is because the farms are so big now, most of them have their own shops.”
The unique method Malogorski uses to capture these fading rural scenes is also disappearing in this modern age of iPhones and digital photography.. He uses a century-old Cirkut Camera manufactured in 1915 that takes panoramic photographs, creating images that are both very, very long and very, very narrow.
“This is 52 inches, I’ve got plenty of them that are 66 inches,” Malogorski says measuring the print. “These are the largest, large format cameras ever commercially manufactured.”
Cirkut Cameras were wildly popular in the early 1900’s for documenting large school groups, family picnics, church outings and military regiments. They came in five versions: The No. 6 and the No. 8. were referred to as Cirkut Outfits. Outfits consisted of a Cirkut attachment that could be mounted on the conventional view camera and wood tripod included in the Outfit package. The No. 5, No. 10 and No. 16 were called Cirkut Cameras, where the panoramic feature is built into the camera. The numbers refer to the width of the film the camera was built for.
“The biggest one was the No.16, which was sixteen inches wide and average negatives were about 10 feet long. Those are very rare, and very rarely used,” Malogorski says. “Mine is a No. 8. It uses 8 Inch wide film.”
Finding film for a camera that is over 100 years old can be a challenge. Malogorski has to special order his from a company overseas and he has designed a darkroom in his basement that is specialized to develop and print the oversized film.
“Cirkut camera prints are noted for a lot of great clarity because these are contact prints,” Malogorski says.
The name Cirkut comes from the fact that the camera can rotate 360 degrees on top of the special tripod as it exposes the film inside. Originally the camera used a wind-up mechanism and gears, much like a clock, to do this. But, Malogorski has retrofitted his camera with a battery operated motor that gives more control over the exposure time.
“Well, the entire camera rotates,” Malogorski says, giving a demonstration with his No.8 camera. “If I’m inside an interior I use the slowest motor I’ve got, and the smallest battery I’ve got, a 4 volt battery, it can take up to 2 hours to make an exposure.”
Malogorski tells me that he’s always wanted to capture an interior with a clock, so that it shows up on one end at the beginning of the exposure, and as the camera rotates, the same clock will appear at the other end of the print showing that an hour has elapsed.
Because the camera is rotating in a 360 degree radius, the captured image is slightly distorted as it swings in an arc. Upstairs in his workspace Malogorski shuffles through a huge pile of unframed prints, landing on a photograph of an abandoned, wood framed schoolhouse on a barren, windswept landscape. Near the far end of the narrow image a solitary desk sits forlornly in the grass.
“This is near Circle, Montana,” he says looking at the print. “This would be an example of where you're not even aware, but the desk looks like it’s way over there, but actually the desk is fairly close. Remember the camera is turning in a circle. So the desk is not that far away, but the camera stretches everything out.”
One of the most well known Cirkut Camera photographers was Eugene.O. Goldbeck of Texas, who built a career out of photographing large military groups until the end of World War Two. A savvy businessman, Goldbeck realized that he could get the most value from a single negative by selling each individual in the shot a print.
Most Cirkut cameras stopped being produced in the 1920’s with the exception of the popular No.10, which ceased being manufactured in 1945.
“Cirkut Cameras were notorious for being extremely difficult to work with. Almost nobody does it,” Malogorski says. “Several people have tried to do Cirkut photography in the art world, one of them was Kenneth Snelson, and he’s best known as a sculptor. He died in 2018. He said there’s a reason no one’s doing this anymore. If it was easy everyone would be doing it.”
“My thing is I photograph a lot of these shops, but I also do a lot of landscapes, and a lot of rural scenes like the churchyards and the schoolyards and that, and the various interesting cemeteries,” Mologorski says looking through a stack of prints. He lands on one that shows the entrance to a cemetery, framed by a dirt road leading away into the horizon in each direction. At the top of the ornate metal gate are the words Ideal Cemetery.
“There was a town named Ideal, South Dakota, it’s no longer in existence,” Malorgorski says. “ But, it was, at the time they first moved out there, thought of as being an ideal place for agriculture, because it was flat, perfect for plowing.” A google search for Ideal, South Dakota reveals a single Facebook account which features a daily photograph taken of a sunrise with the words “Good Morning” written across it.
Despite the dark humor of an ideal cemetery, the image is a deeper reflection on the underlying theme in Malogorski’s work.
“In the great plains states, I guess the beauty of the area is it’s open - its emptiness - and this does, sort of, give you that feeling.”
Two large, well worn backpacks sit against a wall in Malagorski’s house: One contains all the equipment and accessories for his Cirkut Camera and the other has his 8x10 camera and rigging. In a couple weeks Malogorski will load these packs into his truck, say goodbye to his dogs, and head back out into the great plains states once more to capture the fading rural landscapes, before they disappear from view forever.
Support for Culture Couch comes from WYSO Leaders Frank Scenna and Heather Bailey, who are proud to support storytelling that sparks curiosity, highlights creativity and builds community and Ohio Arts Council.
Culture Couch is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.