Bridging the Bay
Construction of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge has been subject to delay, derision, controversy, and an almost never-ending series of political battles. Ask the average person on the street about the new bridge, and his first words will probably be a lament about its cost or the traffic. Rarely is it mentioned that building the new bridge is an amazing feat of engineering and human achievement—and that’s something photographer Joseph Blumis aiming to change.
“People take a lot of things in the built environment for granted or get impatient when they’re not done in a timely fashion,” Blum says. “I think they have very little understanding of and respect for the skill and determination of the craft workers and laborers who get up at four o’clock in the morning and work eight-, 10-, 12-hour days in all sorts of conditions to build these things. My idea was, through black-and-white photographs, to show how these things are accomplished.”
Blum started photographing the bridge project way back in 1999, when soil samples were first being collected from the Bay floor. A former boilermaker, shipfitter, and welder, he has had little problem establishing rapport with the workers on-site, and his base of knowledge makes him particularly qualified to document the construction. His striking images recall the work of Depression-era photographers, including Peter Stackpole and Gabriel Moulin, who recorded the construction of the original bridge.
Blum goes to extreme lengths to take these photos. He has gone inside piles to photograph welders, atop tall cranes to get the best perspective on bridge sections being lifted, and below monolithic pier columns as they were lowered into place.
“I always check with the superintendent or the foreman about where it is permissible [to shoot],” he says. “I think a lot of people would not think it was safe—in some of the photographs there is 200 tons of iron hanging over your head. So you have to have a certain amount of faith that the crane is going to hold it up.”
This up-close-and-personal perspective allows Blum to capture both the grand magnitude of the project as a whole and the intricate, individual nature of the work done by each laborer. The construction process may include the use of hydraulic hammers that can deliver more than a million foot-pounds of force and cranes that can lift 700 tons high into the sky, but, at the same time, every piece of steel is tied or welded by a worker. As Blum says, “This whole bridge is made by hand. It may be massive, but it’s handmade.”
Blum’s photographs have been featured at City Hall and the Harvey Milk Recreational Arts Building in San Francisco, and are on display at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s office in Oakland as part of a living exhibit that will be updated as construction progresses.
Additionally, the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley is collecting Blum’s photographs for its archive. Blum hopes that his body of work can be used to understand the differences between the construction of the new bridge and the old.“People will see what’s changed with the technology of building bridges,” he says.
“People will see a different workforce. In the ’30s, it was virtually all white men. This will show we have a much more diverse workforce, both in terms of gender and race. There will be a way scholars can compare construction techniques between the two bridges, which I think might be helpful.”
It seems safe to say that, be it between the past and present or construction worker and commuter, Joseph Blum’s photography is helping to build bridges.
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission exhibit is open 9 a.m.–4 p.m. at the Joseph P. Bort Metro Center
101 Eighth St., Oakland
Check in with the receptionist on the third floor.