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construction photos
Shooters Become a Part of the Action When Work Turns Into Art Lens and camera are tools they use to craft images of progress
By Tudor Hampton
Capturing people at work. That’s how Joseph A. Blum, a retired boilermaker in San Francisco, sums up his second career as a construction photographer. The 63-year-old spends most of the day lugging heavy camera gear across miles of rough terrain, ducking inside treacherous rebar cages and climbing hundreds of feet up tower cranes to get the right shot.

Later, in the evening, he’s in a darkroom making prints. He’ll place spent rolls of film into a chemical bath, taking a moment to reflect on his favorite shot of the day. And then, an anxious, little voice inside him says, "I hope I got it."

Just as Yosemite National Park captured the imagination of Ansel Adams, the landscape of construction is a vehicle for artists like Blum. For these people, the sight of human beings, who seem quite small in comparison to their charge, is best explained in a single photograph. "I go to a site and I have a purpose in mind, and that is to tell a story," says Paul Knapick, 41, corporate photographer for BBL Construction Services, Albany, N.Y.


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    Each artist has a unique eye for capturing the progression of workers, equipment and materials on a project. "It’s not the camera that takes the photo, it is really the life-condition of the person," says Michael Goodman, ENR’s contributing photographer in New York City. Some visual artists start out in the construction business, while others become attracted to it along the way.

    One person who discovered construction accidentally is Steve Gould, a 47-year-old photographer who also works as a flight attendant for American Airlines. Five years ago, he heard that Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport was looking for someone to cover its $2.7-billion expansion program. Gould’s flying experience helped him land the photo gig. "I’m real familiar with the ins and outs of the airport," he says.

    The work surprised Gould in more than one way. First, the new material helped him develop his portraiture skills. For several days every week, he shoots what he wants on site while taking progress photos for the owner.

    Gould. Airline experience landed him a job shooting a major airport expansion in Dallas.

    The work surprised Gould in more than one way. First, the new material helped him develop his portraiture skills. For several days every week, he shoots what he wants on site while taking progress photos for the owner.

    The work surprised Gould in more than one way. First, the new material helped him develop his portraiture skills. For several days every week, he shoots what he wants on site while taking progress photos for the owner.

    His tasks are "kind of like a laundry list for a wedding. You know, get a shot of Uncle George, and so on," says Steve Roth, airport communications manager.

    Gould also didn’t expect the job to be physically demanding and "hard" on the equipment, he says. So far, he’s taken 20,000 images. They help the owner present the public with an insider’s view of the expansion. Some shots dwarf workers to convey scale. Others show a facial expression on what ordinarily is just another day on the job.

    Knapick. A shutterbug superintendent, his boss made him a full-time photographer.

    Because Knapick’s client is a general contractor, his eye for detail is slightly different. "Paul goes to all our jobs and takes pictures that represent our best work," says Todd Woods, BBL director of operations. Kevin Gleason, the firm’s president, complains that most professional photographers "take pictures," but they don’t always capture the process.

    Knapick’s background in construction made the difference. In 1985, he received a degree in industrial engineering. For graduation, his wife gave him a 35mm camera. He joined BBL in 1986, settling into the roles of assistant superintendent and project manager.

    Photography was his real calling. "One of my responsibilities was taking photos on the job," Knapick says. "My boss saw the photos and asked me to start taking others." He became BBL’s full-time photographer. His work contrasts the whimsy of people with the complex structures they build.

    Art Imitating Life

    A compelling photograph does more than convey the mundane nature of labor, tools and sweat. It teaches the viewer something new about life, work and the human condition. "I am trying to give the client something they can’t see for themselves," Knapick says.

    Blum. The retired boilermaker used to sneak shots at work. Today, his prints appear in local art shows. (Photo below courtesy of Joseph A. Blum/Kirk Luba)

    Blum uses photography to document the construction process–but he also makes a statement. While he was a boilermaker, he would carry a 35mm camera into steel plants and shipyards. "I used to bring it under my welding jacket and sneak some shots," he says. Today, his prints appear at local art shows and are archived at the University of California, Berkeley.

    One image, taken this year on Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay, shows a gang of ironworkers wrestling with steel reinforcement for the controversial new Bay bridge’s east span. Beyond the workers, rebar swirls above their heads, revealing the existing San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in the distance. The picture reveals grit, muscle and structure, echoing Lewis Hine’s classic black-and-white images of men erecting the Empire State Building in the early 1930s.

    Perhaps unaware of it when he took the photo, Blum also is commenting on a project under heavy political scrutiny. The picture illustrates the solidarity of labor during times of uncertainty.

    Staff members at UC Berkeley see value in such photography. Jack Von Euw, a curator at the school’s Bancroft Library, is buying construction prints for its pictorial archives. "I’ve been trying to bring the collection into the 21st Century," he says.

    Like construction itself, photographs are a piece of history. The face of the labor pool is constantly changing. Infrastructure also is changing. The photographers preserve these otherwise-forgotten details.

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