Stitching Together Portland’s Past, One Photo at a Time

November 20, 2018

By Katie Mayer

This composite panorama, created in Adobe Photoshop from three photos in the Oregon Journal Negative Collection, shows the Multnomah County Hospital under construction on Marquam Hill in Portland. The photographs were taken in June 1921.

The Oregon Journal Negative Collection is full of mysteries, and when trying to solve them, I sometimes find answers I didn’t know I was looking for.

The Oregon Journal, a Portland daily newspaper, was published from 1902 to 1982 and competed with the Oregonian. Many of the Journal’s photographic prints and negatives are preserved at OHS. Thanks to the generosity of the Jackson Foundation, we have been greatly improving access to the Oregon Journal prints and are digitizing thousands of the negatives, which are available and searchable on our digital collections site. Little of the caption information for the negatives survived after the Journal ceased publication, and there’s a lot we don’t know about many of the photographs. As a result, along with scanning and cataloging the images, I do a lot of sleuthing in microfilm, databases, prints, and other resources, looking for names, dates, and places — anything that will help me (and you!) understand the story behind the images. Occasionally, as I’m putting the puzzle pieces together, a whole new picture emerges, such as the nearly century-old panorama shown above.

Multnomah County Library 1921 left. 376G0171Multnomah County Library 1921 center. 376G0172Multnomah County Library 1921 right. 376G0170

These three photographs of the Multnomah County Hospital construction in June 1921 were likely taken to create a single composite panorama.

I wasn’t looking for a panorama when I began investigating three separate photographs, shot on glass-plate negatives, each showing part of the Multnomah County Hospital under construction on Marquam Hill in Portland. What I didn’t know about these photographs was the date they were taken and whether the Journal had published any of them. What I found during my research was evidence that all three were published on Sunday, June 26, 1921, but as a single panoramic photograph (shown below).

Multnomah County Hospital panorama in print. Oregon Journal, Sunday, June 26, 1921

This is the Multnomah County Hospital construction photograph as it appears in a digitized version of page three, section three, of the Oregon Journal from Sunday, June 26, 1921.

Because the image on the digitized news page is somewhat dark and muddy, it wasn’t immediately clear that the panorama came from the negatives in question. On closer inspection, however, details such as piles of construction debris and the car in the foreground appeared to exactly match the same details in the individual photographs. I suspected I was looking at a composite. Because I was excited and couldn’t resist, I made a hasty recreation in Adobe Photoshop's Photomerge feature, which can stitch images into a pretty good panorama in less than a minute. To my delight, the resulting panorama shone an unexpected light on the Journal’s photographic techniques.

Thanks to my experience with the hospital composite, I was later able to spot the pieces of a second panorama in the Journal collection: a series of photographs showing adjacent parts of Portland’s west-side harbor wall and the buildings along the waterfront. An additional clue that caught my attention was a straight line drawn in pencil above the buildings on each negative.

Photoshop again made quick work of stitching the three photos into one wide scene, creating a jaw-dropping view of the waterfront during a time when it looked much different than it does today. The panorama, however, showed seams, as well as defects caused by deterioration of the negatives, so I asked OHS photographer Scott Rook (now retired) for help. He created a seamless image and used his digital restoration skills to reduce discoloration and bring out previously obscured details — with stunning results. Both versions are shown below for comparison.

Portland Harbor Wall photomerge about 1929. Oregon Journal Negative Collection, org. lot 1368, nos. 371N5403, 371N5404, 371N5406.
This panorama shows Portland’s west-side harbor wall and waterfront buildings roughly between the Morrison and Burnside bridges, possibly around 1929. It was created from three photographs in the Oregon Journal Negative collection using Adobe Photoshop’s Photomerge feature. The panorama shows a line drawn across the top of the negatives and discoloration due to negative deterioration.

Portland Harbor recreated by Scott Rook. bb017422

This panorama was created from the same three images and digitally restored by OHS photographer Scott Rook.

I speculate that the waterfront photographs were taken in 1929 to show Portland’s newly completed harbor wall. Unlike the hospital panorama, however, I haven’t yet been able to definitively date the photographs or verify that they were published. I’m especially eager to find the waterfront photographs in print, because I suspect the final panorama might be even larger than the one we recreated here. What leads to that suspicion is a fourth negative of the waterfront and harbor wall, also with a line drawn across the top, that doesn’t align with the other three. That suggests there could be a missing piece that would make the composite a five-image panorama and extend the view further to the south.

For now, that mystery remains unsolved.

Want to know more about how early panoramas were made? The University of Washington has a nice overview of the history of panoramas

Katie Mayer’s Other Posts

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