Sunday, March 19, 2000

Schiff's photos circle the city

Book of panoramas was labor of love

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Every so often Tom Schiff stops walking and begins turning around in a circle. He's not dancing. He's looking at the world around him, all the way around him. He considers taking a photograph of everything he sees while he is turning.

  • What: Literary Lunch Series with Tom Schiff
  • When: Noon, April 4
  • Where: Mercantile Library, 414 Walnut St., downtown
  • Tickets: $5 non-Mercantile members
  • Information and reservations: 621-0717
  • There's more: Lunch, served at 11:30 a.m., is available by reservation until noon on April 3. Cost is $7.50.
        “It has to be good in every direction,” he says, “and you can't see it all at once until the picture is printed.”

        Thomas R. Schiff, 52, of Wyoming, is a businessman, entrepreneur, arts patron, and, at every opportunity, an avid photographer who loves a challenge. He has mastered a camera that takes pictures in a complete circle. His self-published book, Panoramic Cincinnati ($49.95), is filled with colorful views of the Queen City as it has rarely been seen before. Proceeds from the book benefit the Wellness Community Center-Greater Cincinnati.

        The book has an introduction by Cincinnati author Jonathan Valin and sections covering interiors, events and each of the seasons. River views, snow scenes, colorfully lit buildings at night provide the beauty, while event scenes at Oktoberfest, the St. Patrick's Day Parade and a Bengals game at Cinergy Field provide the action and color.

A custom camera
        To take these sweeping scenes Mr. Schiff needs a camera like no other. He uses a custom-manufactured Hulcherama 360 panoramic camera.

        “It's based on the principle of the Circuit Camera that was made a hundred years ago” he says. “They used it to take those big group pictures you see with dozens of everybody lined up in rows.”

        School groups, clubs and fraternal organizations had their group portraits taken with such cameras. They had wind-up motors so they could turn in a semi-circle, exposing one part of the scene at a time as the film scrolled past the shutter.

        “The people were lined up in a semi-circle so they were all the same distance from the camera as it turned. In the photograph it looked like they were standing in a straight line,” Mr. Schiff says.

        A favorite trick of boys in school groups was to stand at one end of the group and then run behind the crowd to the other end. “Because it took time for the camera to pan, a kid could appear twice in the same photograph.”

Not very practical
        Mr. Schiff has the opposite problem. “It's difficult to find a way not to be in the picture,” he says.

        The view the camera captures can be anything from three-fourths of a circle to more than a full 360 degrees, with the same objects appearing on the left and right of the image.

        “Sometimes I duck down, and sometimes I elevate the camera. I have a tripod extention that can run the camera up 9 or 10 feet, so I'm standing under it and out of the picture.”

        People stop and watch when he is working. “They can't figure out what I'm doing. The camera doesn't look like a camera.”

        Using 21/4 inch-wide color film, the camera produces a negative that's 9 inches long. “It's not a very practical camera. You have to have just the right subject. The lighting has to be consistent. There can't be any distracting elements or obstructions anywhere in view. A lot of places you'd like to photograph just have too many trees or telephone poles in the way.”

        Some views, such as a snowy scene in Spring Grove Cemetery, or a broad sweep of the Ohio River from Covington's Riverside Drive, seem normal. But buildings such as the Hamilton County Court House appear to balloon in the middle, which is much closer to the camera than the ends of the building.

        Straight walls are transformed into series of arches. When the camera pans more than a full circle, the same object appears on both ends of the picture. A snowy view of Xavier University shows Victory Parkway on the right and left of the picture as if it were two parallel roads.

Daytime job
        Mr. Schiff is a modest man who doesn't like people to make a fuss over his accomplishments, but there are many. His “daytime job” is Thomas R. Schiff Insurance in Fairfield. He is also chairman and CEO of Lightborne Communications, a video post-production company, and Lightborne Publications, publisher of the weekly Cincinnati City Beat.

        He has been an avid photographer and photography collector for some 30 years and has produced video documentaries on major living photographers. He was one of the founders of Images Gallery, Cincinnati's only professional photography gallery for more than 20 years. He is a trustee of the Wellness Center, the Cincinnati Art Museum and an emeritus trustee of the Contemporary Arts Center.

        He's also the donor of the new Thomas R. Schiff Galleries at the Cincinnati Art Museum, which will open to the public Sunday with Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection.

        But photography is his passion; his panoramic camera is his challenge. “I've lived in Cincinnati all my life and it's exciting to be able to see it in a way I've never seen it before.”

        Panoramic Cincinnati is available at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, the Contemporary Arts Center and Legacies in Hyde Park.


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