As the new, eastern span of the Bay Bridge enters its final building phase, you can’t quite see this happening today: a young man is hanging around the construction site, his cherished Leica 35-millimeter camera in hand. He’s looking for an “important subject” to shoot. A construction worker who has spotted him a few times shouts out, “hey kid, want to come out with us?” That, basically, is how Oakland boy Peter Stackpole spent two and a half years, between 1934 and 1936, documenting the construction of the original Bay Bridge. (He also shot some compelling pictures of the emerging Golden Gate Bridge.)
At some point, Stackpole was given a hard hat, says Drew Johnson, photography curator at the Oakland Museum of California which is exhibiting 23 of Stackpole’s bridge photographs together for the first time. But safety procedures were lax to say the least compared to today. Twenty-three men died while building the bridge — the photo “Quitting Time,” top, likely shows workers heading home early after one of their colleagues died on the job, Johnson says.
Stackpole was only 20 years old when he gained access to the Bay Bridge. His photographs recorded every aspect of construction, from vertigo-inducing images that suggest the scale of the job to more humanizing, intimate moments among the bridge workers.
Stackpole’s parents were both artists. His mother was Adele Barnes and his father was the sculptor Ralph Stackpole. The young Stackpole grew up surrounded by his parents’ artist friends, including Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Dorothea Lange. (Peter Stackpole even appears in Rivera’s mural at the City Club in San Francisco — he is the young boy holding a model airplane.)
Stackpole was working at the now defunct Oakland Post Enquirer when the became fascinated with the hand-held, 35-millimeter cameras like the Leica that allowed for more candid photos than the typical static images of the time, which were often posed and taken using tripods.
Imogen Cunningham suggested Stackpole send his bridge photographs to Vanity Fair which eventually led to him being asked, in 1936, to join LIFE magazine as one of its original four staff photographers.
Stackpole went on to cover world events, including Hollywood, for the ground-breaking picture magazine for 25 years before retiring to his home in Oakland.
In 1991, as he was preparing an exhibition of his work at the Oakland Museum of California, Stackpole’s house was destroyed by the firestorm that swept through the East Bay hills. A group of prints at the museum were saved from destruction, but much of Stackpole’s life work was lost. Finding Stackpole, covered in ash and dust, in the OMCA parking garage pulling salvaged prints from the trunk of his car is Johnson’s abiding memory of the catastrophic fire.
Thankfully, the vintage prints on show at this timely exhibition remain.
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