A Fisheye View (with Update)

February 12, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

As professional photographers go, I've not been in the business all that long, having only gotten serious about it when I was in my 40s and 50s. Unlike many photographers, I didn't take pictures in high school for the school paper or yearbook, despite that I was interested in journalism as a career at the time. Although my mom had given me a Polaroid Swinger for my thirteenth birthday, and I occasionally would commandeer her Kodak Instamatic during vacations or trips back to New York City when visiting her family, the deep-down desire to take photographs didn't settle in with me until well after I'd graduated from Bowling Green State University.

That said, I have long been a voracious consumer of photographs. (Hmmm... that might explain why I wasn't much of a reader until later in life!) I regularly pored over the pages of my parents' photo album, wondering about the people in them that I'd never meet—relatives included—and imagined myself as "being there," thanks to the science that made it all happen. We regularly had slideshows at home after Mom's most recent roll(s) of Ektachrome came back from Kodak, so to a degree, the notion that photographs were a big deal was instilled in me pretty early on in life.

In the spring of 1968, my older brother Mike brought home his high school yearbook, and I dove into the book's contents as if it were my own because... pictures! Of course, I knew many of the people in his class since we had attended the same grade school (albeit with a three-year difference in our ages), so it was fun to see their faces as I leafed through the pages—my egocentric self considered they were my friends as well. I knew these people! As a Freshman less than two years later, I would pester many of them during their Senior year—I was dubbed "little Powers."*

But I digress...

Almost immediately upon opening the book, my curiosity was satisfied, for there—spread across pages 6 and 7—was this fisheye view of the entire student body, faculty, and administrators of the school, taken from the rafters of the gymnasium at Cardinal Stritch High School in Oregon, Ohio on 15 February 1968 by Robert A. Packo**, whose two sons, Mark and Kirk—Senior and Freshman, respectively—were enrolled at the school. It grabbed my attention and took a firm hold on my imagination. In the years since, I have gone back and forth between wanting to have been a part of the student body and wanting to have taken the picture.

It was one of the most clever things I'd ever seen. Of course, my limited knowledge of photography at the time meant that I had zero clue as to what would have been required to take such a photograph. In my mind, the people all assembled in the gym, and the photographer merely lay down on the catwalk and pointed his camera down and snapped off the frame(s). Very simple. Very easy. It didn't occur to me the amount of organization it surely required to get everyone to assemble in a near-perfect circle. (As I write this, I imagine that once the camera was in place, and well before everyone entered the gym, Packo had already determined what the outer limits of the frame were, and marked off the floor so that people kept inside the line.)

Years later, while at Bowling Green State University studying Visual Communications Technology, one of my require texts for a photography class was The Camera, one of the sixteen volumes which made up the LIFE Library of Photography. About halfway through the book, I discovered this...

20240211_142145268Edit20240211_142145268Edit The text reads: "This 'crystal-ball' view of a high-school student body and faculty was shot from directly overhead with a 7.5mm fisheye lens, which can take in an enormously wide viewing angle of 180°.  Although it gets everybody into the picture, it sacrifices a great deal in distortion; those at the edge of the picture are tiny compared to those at the center."

Seriously, who cares about the distortion?!? It's a great photograph!!

Students were arranged by seniority from the center out—Seniors to Freshmen—so those at the outer edges are less recognizable unless you happened to have been amongst the group and remembered where you stood as the picture was taken. (I'm pretty sure, though, that I'm able to recognize my brother somewhere around the outer edge—he was a sophomore—in the upper-right area.)

Now that I'm much more aware of the nature of lenses (as well as the difficulty of arranging people for even the smallest of group photographs), I have a better idea of the technical aspects of the project. Assuming that the image is full-frame, the camera had to have been suspended from the catwalk in order to get as close as possible to the people in the center of the image so that they weren't tiny, particularly the school's principal, Monsignor Michael J. Walz, while still being off the floor enough to get everyone in the frame. 

Anyway, it was very cool that a photograph I'd long admired had made it into a national publication. 

As of a few days ago, that's where I expected the story would have ended. But I recently obtained about twenty issues of Cardinal Stritch's student newspaper, Essence, and was delighted to see a story about the photograph and how it came to be. While it's missing a lot of details that I'm hungry to know, I was somewhat surprised to see that it was a much greater undertaking than I originally thought. (Side note: given the now regular occurrence of school shootings, the header of the article is a tad disconcerting.)

$24,000 worth of equipment! That equates to over $211,000 in 2024's currency! I would guess that Nikon sponsored the use of the lens. Likely, Packo received support from Kodak as well. Was most of the rest of the gear mounting equipment? The description in the above article that the equipment was "mounted on a ladder and placed on the gym rafters" doesn't really begin to describe what had to have been going on. By using a remote control, how did he frame the photograph? Were there trial runs earlier in the week without people present in order to get used to the set-up? If he used both colour and black-and-white film, he must have taken at least twenty exposures (the norm for a short roll of 35mm film at the time) of each in order to use up the two rolls. That means that there were "outtakes"!! How much trouble was it for him to change rolls of film? Were there TWO cameras set up side by side? There are SO many questions!

19680215CSHS_Existence_FisheyeAssemblySM19680215CSHS_Existence_FisheyeAssemblySM The above photograph was also scanned from the yearbook (unfortunately, it also runs across the book's binding). It was taken by Packo (or possibly one of his sons) as the students got themselves assembled. I originally thought that people mostly stood for the photograph, but clearly, the preponderance of people sat, which probably required using almost every available chair in the school. How many candid photographs were taken that day and what became of them?

I wish I could find an original copy of the photograph. Packo died at 52, just twelve years after taking the photograph. His eldest son, Mark, followed in his photographic footsteps, but his career drifted more to graphic design; his younger son, Kirk, became world-renowned in the world of ophthalmology, so I wonder what became of their father's archive of negatives and file prints.

Out of curiosity, I dug up Robert Packo's obituary [The Blade, Tuesday, 21 October 1980, Toledo, Ohio] and found he'd he accomplished quite a bit in his fifty-two years of life. 


UPDATE (14 February 2024): After writing this, I scanned the reproduction of the photograph in sections at 4800 dpi and posted them in an alumni group at Facebook. I thought it would be fun—especially for the people who participated in the photograph, but also for me—to identify as many people as possible in the image. Since the people at the center of the image were Seniors, and have the most recognizable faces due to their proximity to the center of the lens, it was mostly people from that class that chimed in to identify themselves and their fellow classmates.

But something wasn't quite right. As people identified a classmate, I would look at that person's Senior portrait sort of as a means of verifying things. I soon noticed that—to a person—the parts in their hair in the fisheye image did not match those in the portraits. That means that the published image—both in the yearbook and in the LIFE book—was flipped from how the photograph was taken. I also managed to find someone with a pocket on his shirt—it was on the right (read: wrong!) side of his shirt. Mike Sarra identified himself in the photo and confirmed for me that his part in the photo was not as he parted his hair. I found further evidence that the photograph had been flipped when I saw the above candid photo that was taken as people took their positions. 

19680215CSHS_ExistenceFisheye05Detail_AssemblyDetailDiptych19680215CSHS_ExistenceFisheye05Detail_AssemblyDetailDiptych In the image on the left, note the girl in the checked jacket (Barb Mauter) in front at left. The person to the right of her has light hair. In the detail taken from the non-fisheye image, there's a dark-haired girl on that side; the light-haired girl looks also to be on the opposite side of her. Also, over Barb's left shoulder in the fisheye view is a girl in a white top—she appears over Barb's right shoulder in the candid photo; similarly, the fellow with the checked shirt over that girl's left shoulder appears over her right shoulder in the candid photo.

Further evidence of the fisheye photo having been printed backwards... Eileen Simon (checked jacket below) appears to the left of Mike Brimmer (light shirt) in the fisheye image (left), but are reversed in the candid photo. I've yet to identify the people next to them, but clearly the girl with the patterned sweater who is left of Eileen in the fisheye image is right of her in the candid photo; likewise for the fellow to the right of Mike in the fisheye image. (The photo is printed across the yearbook's gutter, hence the blurriness and imperfect rendering of the fellow next to Mike.)


My initial thought was that the image accidentally got flip-flopped when it went to press for the yearbook, but what are the chances that the accident happened both times it was published? And by TIME-LIFE books no less? C'mon... if anyone knew what they were doing, it was TIME-LIFE. So I have to believe that Packo made the decision to print the photograph backwards, although why, I wouldn't know. But then I thought: did he do his own printing or have a technician print it? I doubt that a technician would have made the decision to print it backwards, and if he/she was a technician of any calibre, printing it backwards would have meant straying from standard procedure of placing the negative's emulsion down in the negative carrier. 

Another possibility, I suppose, is that Packo printed a film positive to send to the printers and somehow accidentally mis-identified the right-reading side of the image. I think that's a bit far-fetched, though. The other possibility that might make sense is that he didn't like the direction the school's principal, Monsignor Walz, was facing. This also seems a little far-fetched, but I feel as though an aesthetics choice was more likely than a mistake made in any of the labs during the production of both publications. 

This annoys me. It annoys me because all too likely, anyone who had anything to do with this photograph getting to print—either as a glossy print for display or for photo-offset reproduction—is not around to answer as to why it's backwards in the publications. Were enlargements for display printed backwards as well? Both of Packo's sons have died, and I wouldn't have a clue as to how I might determine if he employed a darkroom technician. 

UPDATE II (16 February 2024): A few days ago, I attempted to contact Robert Packo's namesake grandson, who works in photography and video production in Chicago, thinking he might have inherited something from his grandfather's estate, but I had no luck. So, I thought I'd get in touch with people who might be in touch with him. Ultimately, my contact information was shared with Mike Momenee (who is somewhere at the outer edges of the fisheye image), who was college roommate and best buds with the elder Robert Packo's son Kirk. Mike called Kirk's widow to see if she knew anything and then he called me. Apparently, after Packo died in 1980, the decision was made to get rid of everything... cameras, lenses, equipment, negatives, file prints... EVERYTHING. Considering both of his sons' very successful careers, wading through what had to be thousands upon thousands of photographs would have required way too much of their time. There are a few things of Packo's available at eBay, and I've contacted the sellers to find out where they'd obtained their items. Only one attended the estate sale, but that person appears to have been more interested in non-photo-related ephemera. It occurred to me that maybe an original copy of the photograph is extant at TIME-LIFE Books, but a quick search rendered what I'd known long ago, really, that the publishing entity had been sold a few times and no longer exists. I remain convinced, though, that at least one copy of the print remains out there somewhere. I hope, too, that the candid photos taken that day exist somewhere.

I also heard from Bernie Soltis Kennedy, who told me she'd worked for Packo at that time as a secretary/office helper. She told me that Packo did all his own printing, so I guess that removes one of the variables. 

*there is no S on the end of our name, but what are you going to do?

**Packo's father was Tony Packo, whose restaurant was made world-famous by Jamie Farr on the CBS television series M*A*S*H.


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