When “Peter Stackpole: Bridging the Bay” opened on July 13, 2013 at the Oakland Museum of California, it was the first time that a full set of his bridge pictures has been shown since the photos were acquired and the first time 1935 that a full set had been show in any museum, anywhere. Furthermore, it took 20 years to gather 20 images for the collection.
“We’ve brought them out one or two at a time, but this is the first time they will all be gathered together in one space,’ says Drew Johnson, OMCA curator of photography and visual culture.
Visitors might thing that the timing was planned to coincide with the opening of the new eastern span of the bridge (assuming that the problem-plagued bridge will open any time in the coming decade).
But the span that Stackpole shot was the side that connected Treasure Island (as it was called then) to the San Francisco side.
Stackpole was 21, the year was 1934 and he courageously followed the invitation of a bridge worker to climb up and photograph them – climbing the steel towers, the catwalks, shimmying down the catwalks.
The show’s curator, Drew Johnson, told KQED’s Cy Musiker it was partially just luck that Stackpole was able to get such breathtaking shots.
“And so he was hanging around, basically around by the Embarcadero watching the piers go up. And a bridge worker noticed him and must have sensed what he was thinking or something because he said, ‘Hey kid, why don’t you come out with us, you’ll get some good pictures.’ And Peter said, ‘That was the invitation I was waiting for. ‘As long as Stackpole wore a hard hat nobody objected to him being up there.”
Nobody paid him to be up there either, until “Vanity Fair,” ran a spread, in 1935. Someone from the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA) saw it, and Stackpole’s bridge photos were given a show at the old museum in the Veterans Building, before the bridge had even opened.
This got the attention of Time Inc. founder Henry Luce, who was starting a picture magazine called Life. Luce hired Stackpole who would go on to shoot 26 cover stories. Stackpole worked for Life from 1936 to 1960, joining Alfred Eisenstaedt, Margaret Bourke-White and Thomas McAvoy as the magazine’s first staff photographers. His work also appeared in Time, Fortune, U.S. Camera and Vanity Fair.
But nothing beats his original, courageous, young-man-with a photo images of the men who built the bridge.
All 22 bridge photos, including two of the Golden Gate under construction, were printed and signed by Stackpole in the 1930s. Most are smaller than a sheet of letterhead and all were in black and white, as was the fashion. His descriptions, mostly recorded in an oral history before the 1991 show, serve as wall text.
“I shot this on my first day,” reads the text from the opening image, shot in 1934. “I got on one of the piers that held up the towers. Just two long pieces were in place here.” By 1935, “I discovered ways of just hanging around long enough so they got used to me,” reads another one. “And then when I’d raise the camera to my eyes, they wouldn’t look at me. They just went about what they were doing.”
This allowed him to get one of the more poignant shots, taken from the bow of a crew boat. “Deep in contemplation, a crew goes home after hearing the news of a fatality,” it reads, “The man in the middle with the gray cap (later) lost his life.”
In 1991, a fire at his home in Oakland, Calif., destroyed most of his negatives. Friends said Mr. Stackpole had less than 20 minutes to save what he could and managed to salvage only the work that established his career, showing the building of San Francisco’s great bridges.
The show in the Gallery of California Art runs through January 2014.