It was 80 years ago that two major building projects commenced in the Bay Area. When the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge were completed in 1936 and 1937 respectively, San Francisco was linked to our neighbors in the north and east bay, cultural and economic relationships were solidified, and two soon-to-be iconic structures were on their way to worldwide recognition. In December 2013, if further delays don't hinder, the Bay Bridge will undergo a major shift when the span connecting Yerba Buena Island to West Oakland is demolished and a new, earthquake safe (does such a thing exist?) section replaces it. Before the transition takes place, stop by the Oakland Museum of California and see Peter Stackpole: Bridging the Bay, an exhibition of photographs that detail the construction of our equally beloved and reviled landmark.
Bridging the Bay is the third in a series of exhibitions that considers issues in California history and culture through the medium of photography. Following closely presentations of work by Ken Light and Beth Yarnelle Edwards, the exhibition of Stackpole's black and white images portrays a turning point in Bay Area history and subtle commentary on the impact of labor and technology in our daily lives.
Peter Stackpole (1913-1997), the son of San Francisco artists Ralph Stackpole and Adele Barnes, is best known along with Alfred Eisenstaedt, Margaret Bourke-White and Thomas McAvoy as one of the four original staff photographers employed by LIFE magazine, and for his candidly funny images of Hollywood's rising stars.
Peter Stackpole, Waiting on Catwalk
The series currently on exhibit was captured after the young Stackpole, as the story goes, was invited by bridge builders to photograph the pace and product of their work. Carrying a handheld 35mm camera, lauded at the time for its easy use and compact size, Stackpole often visited the worksite without the protective equipment that prevented laborers from plunging to certain death in the cold waters below. Stackpole presents these fearless men as the only pliable forms in compositions otherwise dominated by rigid steel beams and coiled cables. The bent forms of two men at work in Waiting on Catwalk form a perfect parenthesis around the massive ships, which from above appear miniscule as they steam across the Bay. Stackpole was not ignorant to the fact that the work these men performed was dangerous, at times fatal, as the piece entitled Quitting Time suggests. After a fatality, it was common for workers to end the day early, rather than continue with the weight of another's death on their minds.
Peter Stackpole, Quitting Time
Stackpole's compositions remind me of images produced not so long before, or contemporaneously, by artists including Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Berenice Abbott, who all photographed New York as skyscrapers overtook Manhattan island and cast urbanization on a skyward trajectory. Bridges, like buildings, are motionless objects that cannot be coaxed into providing their best views. It falls to the photographer to convey the beautiful oddities and material or construction marvels that render unique each constructed environment. Stackpole did just that, capturing from above and below views that are nearly impossible to achieve today and will soon be lost to history when the eastern span of the bridge is dismantled.
Peter Stackpole, Wrapped Cable
In addition to stirring feelings of sweet nostalgia, Stackpole's photographs raise the related issues of labor and technology. Not to depart on a Marxist-infused diatribe about the state of our economy and the shift away from heavy industry as an anchor of financial stability, but we can't ignore the immediate and long-term effects such a shift enables. We are what we produce, and not so long ago, those fruits of labor included bridges, dams, and a nationwide highway system. When all was said and done, those projects, while troublesome in some aspects, helped define our nation as one built on and by labor. In current parlance, "labor" and technology or "tech" are defined almost exclusively by IT, not manufacturing. It's easy to forget that technology had an application beyond apps and the devices for and by which we create and access them. Peter Stackpole: Bridging the Bay reminds us of how labor -- marked by skill and a willingness to perform work that others cannot -- and real world technological innovation can change our lives.
Peter Stackpole: Bridging the Bay is on view at the Oakland Museum of California through January 26, 2014. For more information, visit museumca.org