Thomas R. Schiff: Virginia 360: an exhibit of photography organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
January 15- February 17. The noted American contemporary photographer Thomas R. Schiff uses a panoramic camera to create dynamic and startlingly original images of well-known buildings and familiar places: “I always like to go to places people are familiar with and show the perspective from a panoramic camera,” he recently stated. “The camera distorts everything in the picture – straight lines become curved and it throws off your perspective. It challenges your relationship to what is familiar or thought to be understood.”
The artist’s passion for photography began in grade school in Cincinnati, Ohio, when he began taking photographs with a Kodak Brownie camera. By the time he studied photography at Ohio University he was using a 35mm camera, but Schiff eventually grew tired of the small format of traditional cameras and in 1994 he purchased a Hulcherama 360-degree panoramic camera that allowed him to create highly detailed photographs of building exteriors and interiors on a monumental scale. The artist also began using a custom-made tripod that allows him to elevate the camera up to 20 feet in the air, thus avoiding the many obstructions that one finds at ground level, such as fire plugs, parked cars, and stop signs, as well as a wide angle lens, which allows him to capture more of the image above and below the horizon line. The resulting full-color panoramic photographs of special spaces, places and structures in Ohio were published in 2003 in Panoramic Ohio, a bicentennial tribute to his home state.
In 2004 Schiff began taking panoramic photographs of Virginia, which like Ohio features exceptional historic buildings and beautiful natural environments. This exhibition presents 40 photographs that Schiff made in the Commonwealth of Virginia between 2004 and 2013, all of which were included in the artist’s 2015 publication Virginia 360°: Photographs by Thomas Schiff. Combining Schiff’s passion for photography and his love of architecture, the works on display in this exhibition provide a fresh, new perspective for these notable Virginia landmarks, thus encouraging the viewer to reevaluate their perceptions of the world.
Virginia is an ideal subject for the photographer – especially one, like me, whose focus is on details as well as the big picture. In this place of fascinating historical landmarks, I was particularly grateful to be using my favorite panoramic camera with a 360-degree view to capture these images. It enabled me to create photographic prints that immerse the viewer in Virginia’s visually rich environment. The photographs in this exhibition reflect the simplicity and symmetry of the neoclassical architecture of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, the University of Virginia’s campus, and the Virginia State Capitol. The marvelous cities of Richmond, Charlottesville, and Williamsburg, which add luster to any pictorial document of this resplendent state, boast many fine edifices that are as glorious as the urban environments they occupy. And the rural Presidential retreats of Monticello and Mount Vernon complement the beauty of Virginia’s misty highlands and its green and golden valleys.
For nearly twenty years, I have used a Hulcherama 360° panoramic camera developed by the late Charles A. Hulcher, who had previously designed a variety of custom high-speed cameras for NASA. His company in Hampton, Virginia, began manufacturing panoramic cameras in 1979. I use film rather than a digital format to take my photographs because I prefer the color results from film. My Virginia pictures, which were shot with Fuji or Kodak 220 roll film and then digitized and finished in Photoshop, fairly glow with colored light. I often find that the most critical factor in the success of any picture is how it changes the photographer’s or viewer’s relationship to what is familiar and understood. I like to think that my photographs encourage people to look at common components of the physical world in new ways.