James Calvin Patton, Black Billy Sunday Baptising at Fall Creek, Indianapolis, Indiana, August 3, 1919
The reproduction linked above is low resolution and not much of a representation, but that’s probably for the best; the original is one of the greatest American photographic objects. The only way to do it justice is to stand in front of it for a few minutes.
The ICP in New York has a small exhibit called “Take Me to the Water: Photographs of River Baptisms” (ends May 8), it’s one room with a mix of vernacular photos, postcards, some professional work and then this panorama. As an object, it shows its age. The caption is written directly in the middle of the photograph. I’ve never heard of James Calvin Patton, but he was an African-American photographer who had his own studio - about 100 years ago. His specialty was group panoramas, the bio on the ICP site mentions a group photo of the 35th Annual NAACP conference. This baptism panorama is a group portrait, in a way, but it’s also a landscape.
It’s large, it’s got resolution (maybe it was created with a custom large format panorama camera). The closer you look the more interesting it gets. It’s like the greatest European tapestries or those vast cinematic paintings at the Louvre, that’s how much Patton has composed in the frame, yet it’s not that large, about 50 inches wide, still a human-scale object.
This is one of those rare photographs that can only be a panorama. People on both sides of the river are looking at the camera. The focus is deep enough that you can make out details across the entire image. Then there are a few people, not quite in the center of the frame, that are involved in the baptism.
Patton’s photograph is one of the most perfect expressions of how American society was, and will always be, generated from our landscape. It also offers a parable of modern Christianity with so many hundreds gathered around the river, to recreate the ministry of John the Baptist, framed by telegraph poles and wires.