At first, the construction workers would reflexively pose as photojournalist Peter Stackpole would raise his camera to capture photographs of them at work. Eventually, Stackpole bonded with the crew, and he became just another one of the boys on The Bridge, at which point the workers wouldn’t even notice the camera when Stackpole aimed it. This relationship was conducive to very candid photographs of their lives over the course of two years as they built the Bay Bridge.
While there are many photographs documenting the construction of the bridge, “Stackpole’s were different because he has the eye of the artist,” said Drew Johnson, curator of photography and visual culture and the curator of the exhibition. “Peter Stackpole: Bridging the Bay” at The Oakland Museum of California is currently displaying the photographs, which bridge the chill-inducing views from the top with the everyday lives of the construction workers from 1934 to 1936.
It all started with an informal invitation from one of the workers; without official authorization (and with the aid of the bridge builders), Stackpole boarded a boat that would give him access to the bridge. Stackpole was one of the first photographers to get his hands on the compact 35-millimeter camera, which was more mobile than prior models. Because of this technological advance, Stackpole was able to get incredible shots of the city as well as the Bay.
The shots eventually captured the attention of the people at Time Magazine, who were in the beginning stages of publishing a photo journal called Life Magazine. “At the time, it was where you went to see what was going on around the world,” Johnson noted.
Stackpole’s work became so well respected that it was featured in publications like Vanity Fair, and he went on to photograph Hollywood events and celebrities. In one overhead shot on display, Errol Flynn is smiling gleefully while hanging from a mast on a boat.
During his two years documenting the bridge’s construction, Stackpole became incredibly close to many of the workers, including bridge builder Joe Walton. One photograph features Walton and a caption that mentions Walton’s generosity — he showed Stackpole how to climb the ladder without “blacking out.” The workers would often pass out because of the altitude, and workers would coach Stackpole on how to maneuver the bridge safely.
Stackpole’s parents, Ralph Stackpole (who was friends with the muralist Diego Rivera) and Adele Barnes, were both Bay Area artists. In 1991, the Oakland Museum of California was exhibiting Stackpole’s work when Stackpole’s home in the Oakland Hills sucummbed to a fire. Stackpole lost much of his work, as well as works by his parents and some Rivera pieces. The works displayed here were saved from the same fate.
Twenty-eight people lost their lives during the construction of the Bay Bridge. The aftermath of one of these deaths is documented in the photograph entitled “Quitting Time” (1935). It was custom for the workers to head home early when there was a death, and the photograph portrays a sullen group of men on a boat on their way back to land.
One of the photographs, entitled “Cable Saddle” (1935), gives the viewer a glimpse of the San Francisco skyscrapers from the bridge. This shot was made possible by one of the bridge workers, who loosened up some hanging safety rope to clear the view. These workers constantly risked their lives not only for the sake of Stackpole’s photographs but also to provide an alternative form of transportation that would have a lasting effect on the lives and the culture of Bay Area residents.
“Peter Stackpole: Bridging the Bay” is on display at the Oakland Museum of California through January 26, 2014.