The new photography exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California, Peter Stackpole: Bridging the Bay, takes Bay Area residents back to the 1933 inception of the Bay Bridge, a time when the Bridge was an innocent, lithe piece of engineering, free of rush hour traffic and faulty seismic safety bolts.

Stackpole, the well known Bay Area photographer who is best known for his celebrity photography in LIFE magazine from 1936 to 1951, was only 21 years old when he began to shoot the series of 23 black and white photographs currently on display.

According to OMCA Photography and Visual Culture curator, Drew Johnson, Stackpole had been hanging out around the Embarcadero, trying to get shots of the Bridge’s construction when a worker invited him onto the bridge. Stackpole, a young and ambitious budding photographer, took his offer and spent the next two years climbing the bridge to document its construction.

The photos are precarious and breathtaking. Mortality is never far off, and in some cases, it commands a central focus. In “Cable Saddle,” an unfinished beam hovers over the Bay like a slide too steep for a visible landing. Two thin lank ropes lay between the expanse of the Bay and the San Francisco bridge tower standing in isolation—“for someone to grab in case they slipped.” Walking down a catwalk that hadn’t been spun with cable felt like “walking on a mattress.”

The photos, narrativized by accompanying Stackpole quotes, also tell the story of the photographer’s friendship with the crew. The photo titled “Pushing Buttons” depicts Joe Walton, a crew leader who taught Stackpole “how to climb ladders without blacking out.”

With each ascension on the Bridge, Stackpole captured a new and awe-inspiring view of the Bay on the verge of change, as well as the human drama of crewmembers working at unfathomable heights. The photos show crewmembers teetering on flat and diagonal planks and rivet heads, and the insertion of the human scale in the photos’ compositions emphasizes the enormity of the Bridge. Stackpole’s photos suggest that the Bridge’s construction represented a great emblem of progress that justified the toil of brave men; the  suspension cables have a geometric clarity that makes them look  like arms over the distant, imperfect molded mounds of land.

It’s not surprising that Lori Fogarty, the director of the OMCA, refers to the photos as “treasures in our collection.” Many of the photos nearly went down in flames with Stackpole’s Oakland Hills home in 1991. Stackpole only had 20 minutes to evacuate and choose to his career inventory of negatives, and some of the images in the show were among the salvaged bunch. Johnson, who worked with Stackpole for to put together his 1992 show on his LIFE portfolio at OMCA, suggested that Stackpole was cognizant of the photos’ historical importance.

“Stackpole had a sense that way of life was going to change in the area because of the bridges,” he said. “Bridges were part of an explosion of public infrastructure at the time.”

Not only do the photos capture vantage points that would otherwise remain unseen to the public, they also mark an important shift in photography towards the use of documentary style photography.

Stackpole pioneered the use of the 35-millimeter hand-held Leica camera, which allowed him to shoot many outtakes. According to Johnson, Stackpole was looking for a big story he could cover with a small camera. Stackpole’s Bay Bridge photography is a hybrid between the fine art, large camera photography associated with Ansel Adams and the Dorothea Lange-style documentary photography.

When viewing the collection, one cannot help but feel jealous of the Bay Area residents of the ‘30s, who were inspired by their infrastructure and lived to see dramatic changes in the landscape. Two of the photos in the show are of the Golden Gate Bridge, a reminder that the iconic bridge opened only six months after the Bay Bridge. I couldn’t help but think that the current state of public works is depraved in comparison, and that it would be nice to build something worth of photographers like Stackpole’s fascination, a monument worth risking your life to photograph.


Peter Stackpole: Bridging the Bay is on view until Jan. 26 at the Oakland Museum of California;

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