Given their application to the fields of reconnaissance, surveillance and the gathering of intelligence, the course of the First World War was in many ways dependent on the production and circulation of panoramic photographs. Panoramas were regularly produced to record the topographical features of a particular landscape; carried by infantrymen in the field, they were often inscribed with gunnery data and used like maps to guide movement. A range of devices were developed in order to make these panoramic landscapes, including single-plate cameras where images were joined to form a larger whole, wide-angle lens camera, cameras with bodies and films that moved and, although we have no record of any Australian use of this device, a miniature panoramic camera with a swivelling lens and curved film that was carried by a pigeon in flight.
Most panoramic photographs were composed of a series of joined individual photographs until the turn of the century, when the Al Vista camera (No. 4 model, 1898), Kodak's Panoram Camera (No. 4 model, 1899) and the more cumbersome Cirkut camera (1904) provided photographers with an accessible means to record one continuous panoramic image.
The most significant contribution made by a camera to the history of panoramic photography has been made by the Cirkut. Initially made by the Rochester Panoramic Camera Co., the Cirkut was acquired by Kodak in 1907, in a move that gave the company dominance of the panoramic camera market. The Cirkut was available in five sizes, and was widely marketed to both amateur photographers and professionals (surveyors, real estate developers, engineers, miners) whose business would benefit from the panoramic documentation of land — advertisements that often tied the Cirkut to a history of panoramic photographs in the aid of land and mineral exploration.
The Cirkut used a long film that was progressively exposed as the camera, rotating on a spring-mounted tripod, tracked its subject. The camera is capable of recording a 360 degrees view of its subject on, depending on the model, a negative stretching over six metres in length. The usefulness of the camera to a range of military applications was soon realised, and one was ordered for the ambitious purpose of producing a comprehensive visual record of the Australian troops who had survived the war. The Cirkut provided an expansive scale and a level of detail that made it possible to photograph entire battalions (arranged in an arc around the camera), in a way that registered the size of the unit at the same time as providing a clear, focussed image of each individual shown.
The Australian War Records Section (AWRS) acquired a Cirkut camera in January 1919 with the intention of documenting the units that remained in France and England. The operation of the camera was the responsibility of Cyril J Jackson (1892–1948). Jackson had worked as a professional photographer in Melbourne before embarking for England on RMS Omrah on 17 January 1917 with the 4th Squadron; he later served with the 71st Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps. On 3 December 1917, Jackson was brought across to the photographic sub-section of the AWRS and spent large periods of the following 20 months in France as an official photographer. He took charge of the section’s new Cirkut No. 10 camera in January 1919.
However, by the time the AWRS took possession of its Cirkut in January 1919, Australian units were in the process of disbanding, and demobilised troops on the journey home. Rather than photographing entire battalions as had been hoped, the Cirkut would only record what could be pulled together of a particular brigade. With this in mind, authorities were consequently quick to deem the Cirkut “somewhat of a failure” (John Treloar).
Even so, the camera was responsible for some of the most spectacular photographic images to have been made during the war. As well as producing photographic group portraits of troops that in terms of scale and complexity were unprecedented in the history of Australian photography, it was also used to make a number of compelling panoramic landscapes of the battlefields over which those troops had fought during the previous three years. Some of these landscapes depict places that had recently seen action, including the ruined village Aisne that had been captured in late September 1918 by American troops operating under General Monash.