E. O. Goldbeck, photographer, was born in San Antonio, the second of four children of first-generation German Americans Benno T. and Ida (Schultze) Goldbeck. Records report that he was born either in 1891 or 1892; his descendents claim that he was born in November 1892. In 1901 Goldbeck decided to pursue a career in photography, after he captured a candid shot of President William McKinley passing by in a San Antonio parade. Within weeks he had purchased his own camera and was taking and selling impromptu portraits of his classmates and teachers, and in high school he worked as a freelance photographer for San Antonio's two city newspapers. After graduating from Main Avenue High School in 1910, he worked at a series of odd jobs and traveled to South America, the West Coast, and Alaska. He financed his trips by taking "kidnapped" photographs, so dubbed by studio photographers because the pictures were taken with no financial obligation to the subject, and then offered for sale. During this period Goldbeck purchased his first Cirkut camera and began experimenting with the panoramic format. Mounted on a revolving tripod geared so that camera and film could move in synchronization, the Cirkut produced long, narrow prints ideal for recording large groups, bird's-eye views of cities and events, and sweeping landscapes. Throughout his career Goldbeck used the panoramic format for group shots, reasoning that the more prints were sold from a single negative, the more profitable the time spent taking the shot.
A second major theme in Goldbeck's work, the use of large military groups as subject matter, developed from his service during World War I in the Photographic Division of the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps. While teaching in the Signal Corps School of Photography at Columbia University in New York City, he met Marcella Fox, whom he married in 1919; they had four sons and a daughter. After a short but profitable stint photographing returning veterans for the Pictorial News Company of New York City, Goldbeck returned to San Antonio, where he worked for Fox Photo. In 1921 he established the National Photo Service, the first and only independent news-photograph supplier headquartered in Texas. He employed several photographers to assist him in canvassing the country recording groups and events, and the company prospered. Goldbeck began providing motion-picture footage to newsreel companies in the 1930s and renamed his company National Photo and News Service.
Known as the "unofficial photographer of America's military," Goldbeck conducted three-year tours to all of the major military bases in and outside of the United States until demand diminished for military group photos after World War II. He pushed the limits of his craft by working with ever larger groups in striking designs. For his largest group shot, in which 21,765 men were arranged to represent the Air Force insignia, he spent more than six weeks building a 200-foot tower and making blueprints of the formation and attire of his subjects. The photograph was subsequently featured in Life magazine and became the most frequently reproduced of his prints. Goldbeck's interest in panoramic photography extended beyond its lucrative potential. In later years he used it to record serene landscapes and city skylines, often for his own pleasure. Over a dozen trips around the world offered him access to many striking scenes, and he took exceptional photographs of the Parisian skyline (1927), the Pyramids and Sphinx in Cairo, Egypt (1971), and the ancient fortress city of Machu Picchu in Peru (1972), among many others. Goldbeck patented several improvements to the Cirkut camera, the most important of which enabled the camera to operate from great heights while maintaining an even scan.
Although critical attention has focused on Goldbeck's panoramic group photographs, his work includes a wide range of formats and subject matter. Of particular interest to Texans are his pictures of early San Antonio, including shots of a dance in the roof garden of the St. Anthony Hotel (ca. 1920), a public baptism in San Pedro Park swimming pool (1925), and a bird's-eye view of Alamo Plaza showing crowds viewing the Battle of Flowers parade at the Fiesta de San Jacinto (1935). Goldbeck's ability to capture striking, simple compositions from a number of elements and his knack of capturing the character of his subjects on film has been praised by photographic historians.
In 1967 Goldbeck discovered that many of his early negatives had deteriorated in storage. Distressed by this loss, he donated 60,000 of his negatives and more than 10,000 vintage prints to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. He also donated his business records and work by other Texas panoramic photographers, including C. A. Stead, H. L. Summerville, Charles W. Roper, W. W. Mitchell, and C. W. Archer. The collection attracted the interest of photographic historians, and Goldbeck's work was subsequently featured in The Unpretentious Pose: The Work of E. O. Goldbeck, A People's Photographer (1981) by Marguerite Davenport and a 1983 exhibition at Laguna Gloria Art Museum in Austin, cosponsored by the museum and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center.
Goldbeck continued to travel extensively well into his eighties, recapturing familiar scenes in color with special film that had been developed for panoramic cameras. He died on October 27, 1986, shortly before the publication of The Panoramic Photography of Eugene O. Goldbeck by Clyde W. Burleson and E. Jessica Hickman. He was buried in Mission Burial Park South, San Antonio. In addition to the extensive collection of his photographs and papers at the Humanities Research Center, examples of Goldbeck's work are included in the collections of Laguna Gloria Art Museum; Palacios Area Historical Association, Palacios; the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library and Fort Sam Houston Museum, both in San Antonio; and the San Antonio Museum Association.