As commuters in the San Francisco Bay Area return to work tomorrow on September 3, those who drive between Oakland and San Francisco will be among the first to travel on the Bay Bridge’s new eastern span. The suspension bridge, which replaces a 76-year-old cantilever model that suffered significant damage during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, took more than 10 years to construct. Commuters and residents have watched the rise of the new bridge from afar, but photographer Joe Blum has been documenting it since the beginning and at the scene, before construction even started.
“When they started doing soil samples for the test piles for the new Bay Bridge, I showed up at the barge one day and they let me on,” the 72-year-old photographer told CBS Sunday Morning. “And I’ve shot virtually everything since then.”
While Blum has photographed the bridge from all angles, it was the thousands of ironworkers who Blum – a former boilermaker and welder turned photographer – was most interested in profiling, joining them on scaffolding, catwalks, and cables high up in the air as he lugged around his camera and a heavy camera bag.
“The engineers get credit. The designers and architects, they know how to get in front of the camera and talk about themselves,” Blum said. “These guys do not at all — and they’re the ones who are taking the plans, the design, the prints, and turning it into a living structure of steel and concrete.”
The ironworkers in the beginning, however, seemed indifferent about Blum being there. “When it first started out, we were probably pushing him out of the way, you know? But he would get right in there and try to take the best shots, you know, of us working,” ironworker Jerry Kubala, Jr. told CBS reporter John Blackstone.
But they later grew to respect him. “We knew early on that he was always going to be our advocate,” said ironworker Ed Meyer III. “We could see it in his eyes and we could see it through the lens of his camera and the images that he took.”
As for the bridge itself, Blum was also interested in capturing the older cantilever bridge alongside the new one. “I often try and get the old bridge in the background of my photographs,” Blum said. “And somebody said to me, ‘Well, why do you want that ugly structure in the back?’ I see it as a beautiful structure. It was built with the technology and the understanding that they had at that time.”
Blackstone compared Blum’s work to that Life Magazine photographer Peter Stackpole, who photographed the construction of the original Bay Bridge and whose work is exhibited at the Oakland Museum of California. Blum’s work will also be recognized, as the San Francisco Arts Commission has opened a show of his work at San Francisco’s City Hall.
Blum was not paid for the work. Instead he did it as a labor of love, living off his Social Security and a small pension. After 15 years of documenting the bridge to the very end, he is now selling his photos.
Watch the CBS Sunday Morning interview here.
(Images via Joseph A. Blum via CBS, San Francisco Chronicle)