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World's largest photograph on display at UC Riverside

Five years ago, a team of photographers created the world’s largest photograph by converting an Orange County jet hanger into a giant camera. The 30-by-111 foot image — called “The Great Picture” — is now on public view for only the second time in the U.S. Displaying the giant snapshot can be a monumental challenge. Making it was a lot harder.

The 1,200-pound item was wrapped up like a giant scroll inside an immense crate. Last week, a team of photographers and assistants popped it open.

They gently tugged the muslin canvas from its steel roller like a giant paper towel, unspooling it inside the sunny atrium of UC Riverside’s Culver Center of the Arts.

“It’s more of an impression than the kind of Ansel Adams type photo that people are used to seeing," says Jacque Garnier, one of the six photographers with the Legacy Project, the team that’s spent a decade creating a visual record of Irvine’s decommissioned El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

“Because of its handmade quality and all that, it really takes on a presence and a life on its own that’s very, very different artistic visual impression."

The silvery black and white image is like an abstract panoramic cave painting. Along a horizon line that splits the twin runaways from the sky and San Joaquin Hills, you can make out a control tower, buildings, giant antennae and even a couple of palm trees. The Legacy Project team created the photo by transforming a 160-foot wide, 80-foot tall aircraft hangar into a giant camera obscura — a dark room.

Legacy Project photographer Clayton Spada pitched the idea to his colleagues. It seemed impossible — crazy, even. They were on board.

“It was just a big building with a 6mm hole on one side of it that naturally projects an image, there was no lens or anything … and it took us … a little over two months to actually prepare the space as a camera to get it light tight,” says Spada.

It took months to seal the hangar’s interior with 24,000 square feet of black plastic sheeting and a mile and a half of duct tape.

“You can’t just take the standard off-the-shelf F-18 jet hangar and turn it into a camera in a day, McCulloh said. “Our pinhole was the size of your pinky fingernail, so any light source even close to that we had to get. It turns out to be almost insane."

They treated their film — a 111-foot imported muslin canvas — with $8,000 worth of silver gelatin emulsion applied with paintbrushes and mops. On a sunny afternoon, it was time to shoot. The photographers thought they’d need a long exposure, maybe weeks. Turns out, they needed just half an hour.

“We were actually in the camera during the exposure just silent knowing that after that exposure that was gonna be the last time we ever saw that projected image before the camera had to destroyed for the processing. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever done in my life but the most profoundly fulfilling," Spada says.

From the world’s biggest camera, the hangar became the world’s biggest darkroom. The photography team dunked the canvas into a makeshift processing tray — 115 feet long — with a liner they bought at a swimming pool store. The sales guy asked, “Do you want a diving board with that?”

It took two days for installer Tony Long to suspend the Great Picture with ropes and pulleys from the Culver Center ceiling.

“The Great Picture is an object that to me is kind of a summation, a full circle statement about photo history," McCulloh says. “It’s a camera obscura which is where photography started. And the moment we … hung it up, still wet, it was turned into pixels and broadcast around the world. So it starts at the beginning of photography, sums it up and becomes electronic overnight.”

It’s part of the Legacy Project’s effort to document every corner of El Toro as it transitions to civilian hands, says Garnier.

“We created the world’s largest picture but also it’s probably the world’s largest documentary project," he says.

Six photographers have spent eight years snapping 150,000 pictures. One of them happens to be the largest in the world.

It’s on view through October at UC Riverside’s Culver Center of the Arts.

An earlier version of this story included an incorrect spelling of Ansel Adam's name. Thanks to our commenters for pointing it out!