A Short History of Rollout Photography

Peripheral Photography (rollout photographs of cylindrical objects) has been an intriguing subject since the early days of photography. At some point, the British Museum created a camera to roll out the Fenton Vase (published in The Blood of Kings, Schele and Miller 1986), but I have not been able to find any history relating to when and by whom their camera was created. One of the earliest rollout images I found was in Life magazine of a fan dancer. The caption said the photograph was made with a Mercator camera. I assumed that "Mercator" referred to "Mercator's Projection", (Gerhardus Mercator, a Flemish cartographer and geographer; 1512 - 94) which is a method of making maps by projecting the globe as a flattened image.

My own experience with rollouts began at the time I made the photographs for Michael Coe's The Maya Scribe: His Art and World in 1972. The process I was using, which required making a series of still photographs of a vase and then having them drawn by an artist, was expensive and rather unsatisfactory. As skilled as the contemporary artist might be, the problem remained; I was not able to study the ancient artist's own hand and style.

My research at the time turned up only two possibilities: one a commercial system, which I could not afford, and the other, a camera made by the Deardorff Company of Chicago. When I contacted them, they explained that they would no longer be making their version of a peripheral camera; the two mechanics who knew how to make one, had both died.

I then started to experiment, using an existing camera, (a Hasselblad), to see if I could convert it to what I needed. I made a number of attempts, trying to make the camera work without destroying the camera itself, but to no avail. Finally, I succeeded in converting the camera's magazine, so that I could move the film with an outside motor. I then proceeded to make some images by using a phonograph turntable, some C-clamps, and some odds and ends of belts and lumber to construct a rig that would hold a vase. A coffee can was my first subject and I remember my anxiety as I developed that first roll of film. As I took the film out of the hypo tank, I was amazed to see that there was a rollout image of the coffee can. After many more experiments with speeds and timing, I was ready to try a real vase.

Gillett Griffin of Princeton sent me a small Olmec bowl with a claw print design (K502). I felt that if I could get a clear image from its curved surface, I should be able to rollout almost any vessel. At exactly the same time, National Geographic's photographer, Otis Imboden made a number of rollouts published with the caption "Photographed with turntable." Some of these images appeared in the December issue of 1974.

The Princeton Art Museum had acquired a vase, now known as "The Princeton Vase" (K511). To celebrate the event, it was decided to mount a major exhibition and catalog. Michael Coe wrote the text and The Art Museum, Princeton University, published Lords of the Underworld (1978) with twenty of my rollouts in color. The appendix in that book sets out the process rather simply and I quote from it:

"The vase sits on a turntable and revolves in front of the camera through which the film is moving at the same speed as the surface of the vase."

The last paragraph of the appendix reads as follows:

"In putting the camera together, I have been encouraged by the opportunity it has given me to meet and collaborate with many wonderful people. I hope to have added a useful tool to the work of decipherment, one that will make it easier for us all to study and appreciate the achievement of these artists. There is personal satisfaction for me in the feeling that I have been able to reach back through the centuries and capture today on film something of the mind and spirit of the great Maya people."

I have now recorded more than 1400 Maya vases. I hope that making them available on the FAMSI web site will further scholarship and allow many more people to become aware of and enjoy the intricacies and beauty of these vessels.

Justin Kerr
AD 2000