Some Strange Subjects and How They Were Taken

The grandstand of the Sheepshead Bay race-track, one spring afternoon, was packed solidly with people, and the broad, terra-cotta-coloured track was fenced in with a human wall near the judges' stand. The famous Suburban was to be run, and people flocked from every direction to see one of the greatest horse-races of the year. While the band played gaily, and the shrill cries of programme venders punctuated the hum of the voices of the multitude, and while the stable boys walked their aristocratic charges, shrouded in blankets, exercising them sedately—in the midst of all this movement, hubbub, and excitement a man a little to one side, apparently unconscious of all the uproar, was busy with a big box set up on a portable framework six or seven feet above the ground. The man was a new kind of photographer, and his big box was a camera with which he purposed to take a series of pictures of the race. Above the box, which was about two and a half feet square, was an electric motor from which ran a belt connecting with the inner mechanism; from the front of the box protruded the lens, its glassy eye so turned as to get a full sweep of the track; nearby on the ground were piled the storage batteries which were used to supply the current for the motor.

As the time for the race drew near the excitement increased, figures darted here, there and everywhere, the bobbing, brightly coloured hats of the women in the great slanting field of the grandstand suggesting bunches of flowers agitated by the breeze. Then the horses paraded in a thoroughbred fashion, as if they appreciated their lengthy pedigrees and understood their importance.

At last the splendid animals were lined up across the track, their small jockeys in their brilliantly coloured jackets hunched up like monkeys on their backs. Then the enormous crowd was quiet, the band was still, even the noisy programme venders ceased calling their wares, and the photographer stood quietly beside his camera, the motor humming, his hand on the switch that starts the internal machinery. Suddenly the starter dropped his arm, the barring gate flew up, and the horses sprang forward. “They're off!” came from a thousand throats in unison. The band struck up a lively air, and the vast assemblage watched with excited eyes the flying horses. As the horses swept on round the turn and down the back stretch the people seemed to be drawn from their seats, and by the time the racers made the turn leading into the home-stretch almost every one was standing and the roar of yelling voices was deafening.

All this time the photographer kept his eyes on his machine, which was rattling like a rapidly beaten drum, the cyclopean eye of the camera making impressions on a sensitised film-ribbon at the rate of forty a second, and every movement of the flying legs of the urging jockeys, even the puffs of dust that rose at the falling of each iron-shod hoof, was recorded for all time by the eye of the camera.

The horses entered the home-stretch and in a terrific burst of speed flashed by the throngs of yelling people and under the wire, a mere blur of shining bodies, brilliant colours of the jockeys' blouses, and yellow dust. The Suburban was over, and the great crowd that had come miles to see a race that lasted but a little more than two minutes (a grand struggle of giants, however), sank back into their seats or relaxed their straining gaze in a way that said plainer than words could say it, “It is over.”

It was 4:45 in the afternoon. The photographer was all activity. The minute the race was over the motor above the great camera was stopped and the box was opened. From its dark interior another box about six inches square and two inches deep was taken: this box contained the record of the race, on a narrow strip of film two hundred and fifty feet long, the latent image of thousands of separate pictures.

Then began another race against time, for it was necessary to take that long ribbon across the city of Brooklyn, over the Bridge, across New York, over the North River by ferry to Hoboken on the Jersey side, develop, fix, and dry the two-hundred-and-fifty-foot-long film-negative, make a positive or reversed print on another two-hundred-and-fifty-foot film, carry it through the same photographic process, and show the spirited scene on the stereopticon screen of a metropolitan theatre the same evening.

That evening a great audience in the dark interior of a New York theatre sat watching a white sheet stretched across the stage; suddenly its white expanse grew dark, and against the background appeared “The Suburban, run this afternoon at 4:45 at Sheepshead Bay track; won by Alcedo, in 2 minutes 5 3-5 seconds.”

Then appeared on the screen the picture of the scene that the thousands had travelled far to see that same afternoon. There were the wide, smooth track, the tower-like judges' stand, the oval turf of the inner field, and as the audience looked the starter moved his arm, and the rank of horses, life-size and quivering with excitement, shot forth. From beginning to end the great struggle was shown to the people seated comfortably in the city playhouse, several miles from the track where the race was run, just two hours and fifteen minutes after the winning horse dashed past the judges' stand. Every detail was reproduced; every movement of horses and jockeys, even the clouds of dust that rose from the hoof-beats, appeared clearly on the screen. And the audience rose gradually to their feet, straining forward to catch every movement, thrilled with excitement as were the mighty crowds at the actual race.

To produce the effect that made the people in the theatre forget their surroundings and feel as if they were actually overlooking the race-track itself, about five thousand separate photographs were shown.