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Work in Progress

June 12, 2013
by Frank Browning
Photo of Joe Blum

Joe Blum’s two loves, storytelling and physical work, come together in his distinctive photographs.

View the rest of the photos here

When I first got to know Joe Blum nearly 40 years ago, he was a union boilermaker working as a shipfitter and welder in the fabrication shops and shipyards of the Bay Area. Joe was a single dad and a workingman. He had dropped out of grad school at Berkeley to enlist in the progressive politics of the day, making common cause with his union mates. He hadn’t yet taken up photography in a serious way.

Unlike most of his politically engaged university pals from the 1960s who became academics or activists, Joe from an early age was drawn to hands-on work. Raised on New York’s Upper West Side, the son of a stockbroker, Joe was a kid with a practical bent.

“We used to have to call the handyman to fix things in the house,” he recalled in a recent conversation, “and I remember asking my parents, ‘How come we’re not handy persons?'”

Back then in New York, the rich and the poor still lived side by side. “My best friend’s father was a building manager—so he and his buddies were the group I fell in with. Yeah, I might have gone to the Bronx High School of Science and Berkeley, but I never considered myself an intellectual.”

Well, yes and no. He graduated from Berkeley in 1965 and did three years of graduate school. Twenty years later he came back and enrolled in a sociology Ph.D. program. But in between, and even during most of his graduate school years, he did “real work” in the shipyards. He was, after all, raising a young son and really needed a job. The political and academic connections he had developed through the University also enabled him to dabble in political commentary for local weekly papers, and to write scholarly reports on global capital flow in the Pacific Basin. But despite recurring offers to return to journalism or to work at independent research centers, he stayed in the shipyards.

By the 1980s, shipyard and steelwork jobs were dwindling, and that sort of physical work grew more taxing as he inched toward late middle age. He picked up a master’s degree in labor relations at San Francisco State University, and then went to Berkeley for doctoral studies. Just as he was ready to plunge into his dissertation, a newfound love of photography offered him a way to integrate the two elements of his life: storytelling and physical work.

Joe’s first gallery show was in July 2000 at the SOMArts Bay Gallery in San Francisco. It included images of men working in the old shipyards and in a steel fabrication shop in Oakland.

But the job that would dominate his life and his career trajectory was a few years away—though it was based on an event that happened more than a decade earlier: the Loma Prieta Earthquake, which shook an entire section out of the Bay Bridge. By 2003, having already photographed the construction of a replacement span for the Carquinez Bridge, Joe was ready to take on the formidable task of documenting the new and radically engineered “self-anchoring” span of the Bay Bridge, which will link Oakland to Yerba Buena Island. He talked his way onto the first workboats that were dispatched to drive test piles.

This job, he says, became “an internal bridge of self-integration.”

He shot close to the water; inside the giant cofferdams where workers drove giant steel piles into the Bay mud; on barges; and on the base-working surface. Frequently enough, he even found himself attached to a security harness and hauled up the high catwalks where the bridge workers, who became his friends, hoisted cables over the two 500-plus-foot tall suspension towers.

In these often monumental images, he focused on getting his cameras as close as he could to the men and women at work. “The story of this bridge is the story of thousands of Bay Area construction workers: pile drivers, ironworkers, operating engineers, pipe fitters, laborers, painters, and electricians. The bridge was assembled,” he always insists, “by hands—thousands of hands.”

Joe can go on for hours describing his fascination with the engineering and technical skill he has documented in what now amount to more than a quarter of a million images, a small sample of which will be on view at San Francisco City Hall from June 24 to September 17. The exhibit will then move to the headquarters of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in Oakland. Black-and-white photographs will be on display at the Harvey Milk Photo Center in San Francisco starting August 3.

To illustrate how sensitive—and cerebral—some of the bridge work can be, he spoke about a foreman and a gang of six or seven men manipulating a giant donut-shaped machine into position around the 137 cable strands, consisting of 17,399 wires, that make up the main cable. This was done while the machine dangled from a crane mounted several hundred feet in the air. The foreman had to make adjustments based on a dozen constantly changing variables to get the massive machine into the correct position, communicating all that information to the crane operator and the other team members high above the choppy waters of the bay, all moving with the precision and skill of aerialists.

That, for Blum the photographer, is where brains and steel and work merge with art. “The men are not allowed to let the 35,000-pound compacting machine touch the main cable or any strand on it,” he says.

Once it’s in position, the machine, using hydraulic jacks inside its frame, travels down the main cable, compacting it into the cylindrical shape familiar to us. “I find a considerable amount of beauty in the motions of people in the course of their work,” he said. “Think of those famous paintings by Millet, The Sower and The Reaper, depicting men and women working in the fields.”

Not long ago, a friend of Joe’s said that although the new bridge is clearly beautiful, he finds the old one quite ugly. Joe disagreed. “I said ‘No, I don’t see anything ugly about it.’ What I see in it embodies the labor of people who previously did a similar kind of work. The way people place their hands, the way people place their feet, the way people arch their bodies, juxtaposed to the pieces of iron that do not move … or the concrete … or the wood. To me this is a real artistic moment. With a still photograph, you get inside the moment.”

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