Panoramic Perspectives: St. Louis by Sievers
If you’ve traveled through Terminal 2 at Lambert–St. Louis International Airport recently, you may have noticed that a little bit of the Missouri History Museum was there to welcome you home. Back in April, the Museum, in conjunction with Lambert Airport and the International Photography Hall of Fame, opened St. Louis by Sievers, an exhibit featuring several photographs taken by the employees of the Sievers Commercial Photographers studio, which operated in St. Louis from the late 1910s through the 1990s. During those years, Isaac Sievers, his son Alvin Sievers, and their employees took photographs all over St. Louis. They captured images of parades and protests, of comedians and Cardinals, of millinery workers and roller hockey teams. They photographed pieces of St. Louis that would have been lost to history if not for their cameras.
The most impressive photographs they took were the panoramas. Using special equipment and film-development processes, Isaac Sievers used his panoramic camera to capture wide images of events that happened all over this city in the first half of the 20th century. Three of his most amazing panoramas have been reproduced and enlarged and are currently hanging above the baggage claim carousels in Terminal 2. These panoramas—one that shows a League of Women Voters rally in 1920, another that documents a celebration for a Jesuit priest in 1921, and one of the Odd Fellows Band in 1923—show off different sides of St. Louis’s history. They reveal the diversity and richness of our city and its history in a way that no other form of photography can.
Panoramas are also, I think, fun photographs. Because they’re so big and capture so much, you can spend hours scanning them looking for small details and moments that, more than likely, were never meant to be captured. If you’ve seen these panoramas, you know what I’m talking about. Each one is bursting to the edge of the frame with small moments of humor, warmth, and unexpectedness. For example, if you zoom in on the panorama from 1921, you’ll see a child on the left side of the frame picking his nose! I’m sure Isaac Sievers never meant to capture that, and I’m sure the young man in question never meant for that moment to be caught on film—or put above a baggage carousel that hundreds of thousands of people a year will use. It’s an embarrassing moment, but it’s also a very human moment, one that shows us that people in the past experienced embarrassing moments that were sometimes caught on camera, the same way we do today.
Sometimes panoramas can also surprise you with a moment of curiosity. For example, in the Odd Fellows panorama from 1923, if you look near the top of the frame, you can see two people sitting in a window looking down at the band. Did they know someone in the band? Or did they just hear a commotion going on outside as the band gathered for the photo and stop to take a look? It’s a moment that no one meant to capture, and it’s an easy thing to miss—I was so wrapped up in examining the people in the band and their uniforms that I totally missed the people in the window the first several times I looked at this photo. But for me the people in the window are a detail that makes the photo that much more interesting. And that’s the beauty of the history documented in these panoramas. No matter how staged and carefully set up they may have been, there are these small moments—some funny, some beautiful and touching, some that simply pull you deeper into the moment that was captured—that shine through if you stop to take a look.
Today, the original copies of these amazing photographs and many more like them are held in the collections of the Missouri History Museum, where they will be carefully cared for so that future generations can use these images to glimpse an important piece of our city’s history. And, next year, we’ll be reproducing even more of these panoramas for a large exhibit here at the Museum. Until that show opens, though, remember to stop and check out the Sievers panoramas at Lambert Airport. You never know what you might find.
—Adam Kloppe, Public Historian