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"Hitherto Impossible": The Man Behind the Flatbush Panorama

Last entry, I posted a 1907 bird's-eye shot of Prospect Park South, and someone wondered about the source of the photo (which I grabbed off the web). Wow, glad you asked! First, here's a redo of the panorama, with Informative Labels By Me. Yes, that is a golf course between Stratford and Rugby Roads, south of the Parade Grounds; the march of development had already devoured the first hole, and the rest of the links weren't long for this world. CLICK THUMBNAIL FOR FULL-SIZED AWESOMENESS!

 Turns out, this is a rare New York shot by the ascended (literally) master of early aerial photography, George E. Lawrence (1868-1938). On the frustrating cusp of the era of aviation, this Illinois commercial photographer created crazy but effective contraptions to take panoramic pictures from the sky, including "captive airships" made of tethered kites and balloons. (He fell out of one such balloon, but then, he also experimented with flash charges for indoor photography and blew his child out a window. Both survived.) His daring extended to his personal life; the bounder ditched his first wife for his much-younger secretary.




Lawrence is most famous for his panorama of San Francisco lying in ruins after its great earthquake and fire. But he built a lucrative business photographing anything that called for a bird's-eye view. A glance at a gallery of his images evokes American values in the Teddy Roosevelt era. Bigger was better! He built the biggest camera in the world to capture a mighty steam engine, and shot political conventions, stockyards, factory floors, and military groups. But I'm particularly fond of his Big Crowds. Check out the sheer scale of the "Coliseum Gardens" somewhere, I think, in the Midwest:

Coliseum Gardens, 1905 (Geo R. Lawrence, Library of Congress)

 Can you imagine being a waiter in this place...or a dishwasher?

Banquets were another favorite subject; flocks of men in penguin suits paid Lawrence handsomely to record their festivities. This laugh-packed affair is a "party for Secretary Taft," and features, I believe, exotically costumed, long-suffering waiters (along with a centerpiece that redefines "farm-to-table eating"):

Secretary Taft's Party Dinner, 1906 (Geo R. Lawrence, Library of Congress)

Lawrence's services were expensive, and I wonder whether perhaps Dean Alvord, the developer of Prospect Park South, hired him to immortalize and promote the fabulous new development in Flatbush, which the Brooklyn Eagle termed "a rising colony of notables" in "a high class aristocratic suburb, the tone and character of which could not be disturbed or changed for a long period to come." (Job done!) I have found no information on what zany stunts were employed to capture the image, but I love the idea of the mustachio'd Mr. Lawrence, on a clear day more than a century ago, rigging up one of his "captive airships" over our sylvan streets.

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Reader Comments (3)

The house at the end of Buckingham Road was Dean Alvord's home. He saved the largest lot for himself. The house burned down in the 1950s. The lot now hosts the Flatbush Community Garden.

A little to the left/South, and my house would have been in the photo!
March 14, 2012 at 09:22PM | Unregistered CommenterXris (Flatbush Gardener)
So wonderful to see a garden growing in that lot. Alvord's front steps are still peeking out of the soil.
March 14, 2012 at 10:38PM | Unregistered CommenterBrenda from Flatbush
I can hardly imagine what that might have been like! The amazing man & his flying machine! Great history and pics, Bren abd especially good labeling on the PPS photo. Our house is the 7th up from Beverly on the far side of Marlborough. Thanx for the memories! (Someone's anyhow)
July 8, 2013 at 09:47PM | Unregistered Commenterartist Karen

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