During the summer of 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, workers broke ground on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, a massive public works project decades in the making. Throughout the three-year construction process, Peter Stackpole, a San Francisco-born photographer, documented the rise of the bridge, scaling unfinished frame and highlighting the workers who undertook the dangerous task of building it.
His work, as well as some of the prints and drawings of his contemporaries, are on display now at San Francisco’s de Young Museum. The photographs chronicle the construction of what would become the largest and most expensive steel bridge of its time, over a stretch of the bay that for years had seemed too wide, too deep and too turbulent to build over. (In 2013, the replacement of the eastern span of the bridge would gain the “most expensive bridge” distinction once again.)
Only in his early 20s at the time, these were the photos that would launch Stackpole’s career, leading to an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art. He would go on to become one of Life magazine’s first staff photographers.
Through Stackpole’s eyes, there’s a grand, industrial beauty to the masses of steel and cable that upheld the towering structure, but always a reminder of danger, too. He captures workers dangling high above the water, inches away from free fall. Thank god for modern safety standards.