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The Bridge Builders, photo exhibit by Joseph Blum, now at MTC in Oakland

The Bridge Builders
Joseph A. Blum

As we drive over the graceful new Eastern Span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, open since September, and delight in its beauty, we might give an occasional thought to the workers who built it. Joe Blum certainly did, photographing them during the dozen years they worked on the bridge's construction.

I wrote about his exhibition, "The Bridge Builders," in July, when it hung at San Francisco City Hall.

Now the same show is on view at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in Oakland, and well worth a second look. Because the show hangs in corridors linking offices, the effect is quite different from the gallery at City Hall. Lacking the space to view each photo from a distance, in all their monumentality, the viewer instead comes face to face with the workers. There's an intimacy that comes from being eye level with the ironworkers, pipefitters, pile drivers, electricians, and carpenters that built the new span.

Here is my original writeup on Joe's exhibit. I re-post the relevant parts, in the hopes that people will visit the MTC to view these immensely satisfying and important works of documentary art.

Click here to view the slideshow that illustrates my original post on "The Bridge Builders."

Joe Blum is far more than a brilliant photographer whose works documenting the construction of the East Span of the San Francisco - Oakland Bay Bridge are full of majesty, poetry and sheer scenic beauty. Blum’s background as a boilermaker, shipfitter and welder, as well as a labor historian, gives him a unique connection to the bridge builders whose dignity and courage emanate from each and every photograph.

That means viewers are easily drawn into the workaday world of the bridge-builders. Clearly this is no humdrum day at the office. Here we see men and women perched precariously on catwalks hundreds of feet above the bridge, grasping steel cables with heavily gloved hands, and operating heavy equipment as they straddle platforms suspended from ropes that sway in wind and fog. The monumental scale of it all overwhelms. The workers are nothing short of heroic figures.

Blum too. Whether standing beside a gang of workers as they guide in place massive rebar rods or thousands of strands of cable, or getting a perfect long shot while hauled up as high as 500 feet in a security harness, Blum has been out shooting night and day for well over a decade. He calls himself a troll that lives on the bridge, and speaks from the heart of the workers that watch out for his safety and well-being.

Viewing the exhibition is the best way for us, the average commuters, to begin to comprehend the drama of this work that was going on around the clock, as we drove in the relative comfort of our vehicles across the existing bridge span.

Aside from their importance as an essential documentation of bridge building, these photographs are magnificently choreographed. The bridge builders become ballet dancers through Blum’s lens, the long weighty rebar rods, giant bolts or even a tower shaft part of the stage set anchoring the movement and positioning of the workers. The poetry comes in the form of wispy fog, city lights and the camaraderie and teamwork of a crew of workers.

Compositionally and choreographically, these 85 large format color photographs are pure magic and no one should miss a chance to view them.

THE BRIDGE BUILDERS

Constructing the New Bay Bridge East Span

A Solo Exhibition of Photographs by

Joseph A. Blum
January 21-- May 31, 2014

MTC Offices

101 8th Street, Oakland, CA

Third Floor

Open: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays

While at the MTC, visit the Second Floor to view the following two exhibits:

Through an Engineer’s Lens

Photos of the New Bay Bridge East Span
by Martin Chandrawinata

March 11, 2013 – April 30, 2014

The Art of Steel

Views of fabrication work for the new Bay Bridge East Span in Shanghai, China

Photographs by Tom Paiva

To broaden your perspective on the bridge, cross the bay to San Francisco to view:

The Bay Bridge: A Work in Progress, 1933-1936

On display at the de Young Museum through June 8, 2014

This exhibition documents the bridge’s original construction in the 1930s with a newly acquired group of photographs by Peter Stackpole (1913-1997). Prints and drawings by his contemporaries, many who were documenting the Bay Bridge construction under the auspices of San Francisco’s Federal Art Project, are juxtaposed with Stackpole’s work. Some of these artists include Dong Kingman, Otis Oldfield, Arthur G. Murphy, George Booth Post, and John Stoll. Also featured are original studies from the firm of renowned San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger, who contributed to the design of the original Bay Bridge.