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Constructing the 1930s

August 28 through December 8, 2002

Photographs of major construction projects from the 1930s, including images of the Golden Gate Bridge and Empire State Building

The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is pleased to present Constructing the 1930s, an exhibition of photographs that capture the drama and visual impact of major construction and engineering projects from the 1930s. Included are photographs of the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, which was completed in 1937, and the Bay Bridge, completed in 1936. Drawn primarily from the Pictorial Collection at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, the images represent a quintessentially twentieth-century genre of documentary photography that celebrates the prowess of the United States. The exhibition will remain on view through December 8, 2002.

Constructing the 1930s represents a range of photographic styles that illustrate different aspects of the construction process. The exhibition includes Lewis Hine's well known series documenting the raising of the Empire State Building from groundbreaking to grand opening, in which the building's growth from steel-girdered frame to skyscraper is captured frame by frame. In Peter Stackpole's series When They Built the Bridge (1934–1936), which documents the construction of the San Francisco's Bay Bridge, the emphasis is not on the structure itself but on the workers, whom Stackpole photographs contrasted with the sharp angles of the bridge's girders and cables. In other photographs, such as those by Ben Glaha of the Hoover Dam (completed in 1936), the photographers focuses on the sheer monolithic size of their subjects and the ways in which they create their own sense of scale and space.

An interesting juxtaposition is made with Russian photographer Alexander Rodchenko's propaganda photographs of the construction of the White Sea Canal. This major project linked the White Sea with the Baltic Sea and relied exclusively on forced labor, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths before it was completed in 1933. What the photographs in Constructing the 1930s have in common, however, is a certain romantic vision of their subjects. Before and after views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and striking aerial photographs of constuction projects underway are imbued with a sense of drama, suggesting the photographer's own excitement at the .

The work of two Bay Area photographers included in the exhibition demonstrates how this visual language is still applied to major construction projects. Catherine Wagner's documentation of the building of the Moscone Center (completed in 1981) and Joseph Blum's photographs of the Four Seasons Hotel and Tower (2001) in San Francisco take strikingly different approaches. Wagner's graphic close-ups concentrate on the workers

A fascinating exploration of a quintessentially twentieth-century genre, "Constructing the 1930s" celebrates the grand engineering and construction feats of the 1930s through the medium of documentary photography.

Drawing on the extensive Pictorial Collection at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, this exhibition looks at the ways in which photographers lent narrative and drama to such monumental projects as the construction of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, and the rise of the Empire State Building. Also included are Alexander Rodchenko's controversial documentation of the construction of the White Sea Canal, as well as more recent images of the building of San Francisco's Moscone Center (1981) and Four Seasons Hotel and Tower (2001).

Richard Misrach is perhaps best known for his explorations of the deserts of the American West. His recent Golden Gate series, however, was taken from his home in the Berkeley Hills, which offers spectacular views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. In 1997 Misrach began to photograph the bridge from the front porch of his home, taking each photograph from the exact same viewpoint, but at different times of the day and night. Over the years, photographing this view became an obsession; the thirty works on view in this exhibition are drawn from a collection of more than 700 images. Each photograph features a vast expanse of sky anchored by a thin strip of land and sea, and captures a single moment in the ever-changing atmospheric conditions over San Francisco Bay. The results are spectacular photographs that capture the bridge bathed in dazzling combinations of color and light, ranging from dark, foreboding, blue-gray storm clouds to brilliant red and orange sunsets – and, of course, photographs in which the bridge is completely obscured by fog.

By keeping the view constant from image to image, Misrach focuses attention upon the environmental effects which change from day to day, moment to moment. Misrach's photographs can be closely compared to landscape painting; his images of the Golden Gate Bridge have been likened to color-field paintings by Mark Rothko, or the pristine brilliance of landscapes by Albert Bierstadt. In an essay about American landscape painting, writer Geoff Dyer comments that, in Misrach's photographs of the Golden Gate, it is "as if the sky in every one of the paintings on show at the Tate Britain has, at some point, ended up in the Bay Area." Misrach's repetitive approach to his subject matter evokes impressionist painters such as Paul Cézanne, whose similar obsession with Mt. Ste. Victoire has made that mountain familiar to even the most casual of art appreciators; and to Claude Monet, who portrayed haystacks and the facade of Rouen Cathedral in various seasons and at different times of day.
Misrach's concerns, however, go beyond the beauty of the scenery to encompass the history of view, and the politics of having a view. In the publication that accompanies the exhibition, Richard Misrach: Golden Gate, Misrach notes that what is not apparent in his photographs of the Golden Gate Bridge is his "privileged position high up in the peaceful, well-to-do, sylvan Berkeley hills." He states that "to own a view is as much about property values as it is about ocular pleasures."

The subject and style of the early photographic series Telegraph 3 A.M. reflect the artist's early idealism and admiration for such photographers as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Photographed in the early 1970s, this series captures life on Telegraph Avenue, which leads directly to the UC Berkeley campus and which was in the late '60s and '70s a mecca for counterculture life. As a young and idealistic photographer, Misrach believed that these images of life on the streets of Berkeley might effect social change. For many years, Misrach counted this early photographic series a failure, despite their selection for a 1975 solo exhibition at New York's International Center for Photography. Misrach now considers the Telegraph Avenue series as a worthy document of that historical moment.

Please note: a selection of images from this exhibition is available as electronic files or slides. Please contact Rod Macneil at (510) 643-6494 or rmacneil@uclink.berkeley.edu.

Public programs
Gallery Talk
Constance Lewallen, Senior Curator for Exhibitions
Thursday, August 15, 12:15 p.m.
Gallery 2
As brackets to Misrach's career to date, Telegraph 3 A.M. and Golden Gate represent two enduring aspects of his photographic approach and philosophy: social responsibility and aesthetic pleasure. Constance Lewallen illuminates issues implied if not foregrounded in the artist's recent work.

Panel discussion
Richard Misrach, Richard Walker, and Kenneth Baker
Sunday, September 15, 3:00 - 5:00 p.m.
Museum Theater
Following a slide-illustrated presentation by Misrach, Richard Walker (UC Berkeley Professor of Cultural Geography) and Kenneth Baker (art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle) will discuss the photographs from environmentalist and aesthetic standpoints, respectively, and engage in discussion with Misrach. The panel will be moderated by Constance Lewallen.