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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Photos Capture 15 Years Of Work On San Francisco-Oakland Bridge

California’s new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge opened last night, after 11 years of construction and a $6.4 billion price tag.

With a welding torch in hand, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom cut the chain as the San Francisco and Oakland mayors looked on.

The 2.2-mile span cost five times more than projected and replaced a bridge that was damaged in the 1989 earthquake.

Photographer Joe Blum has been there since the beginning. The retired boilermaker and welder has been documenting the project for 15 years.

His images are stunning, showing workers suspended from frightening towers, maneuvering catwalks, hanging cables.

But as he tells Here & Now, winning the approval of the workers wasn’t always an easy sell.

Guests

  • Joe Blum, photographer who documented construction of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
  • Kevin Karber, ironworker who worked on the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

California's new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge fully opened last night. It took twice as long as predicted to build, 11 years, at five times the projected cost, the total of $6.4 billion.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

YOUNG: Last night, as mayors of San Francisco and Oakland looked on, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom wielded a welding torch to cut a chain and allow cars on the soaring span. Erica Lockett(ph) was one of the first.

ERICA LOCKETT: May we never lose that sense of astonishment or awe at what we're capable of creating and bringing forth.

YOUNG: Photographer Joe Blum would agree. The retired boilermaker and welder has been documenting the project. His images are stunning, a must-see at hereandnow.org. He took them for free for 15 years. Now, 72-year-old, Joe Blum joins us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Welcome.

JOE BLUM: Hi. Glad to be here.

YOUNG: And how would you describe these pictures? I've been thinking of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," you know, the 1927 black and white film because of its grandeur, but also, I'm picturing Charlie Chaplin hanging off a big clock tower in its ridiculousness for some of the things that these workers did. How would you describe these images?

BLUM: Well, you referenced movies. If I was going to reference anyone, although I don't think I can speak of myself in the same terms, I would think of Lewis Hine, who documented the workers putting up the Empire State Building and other things, and Peter Stackpole and the Mullen(ph) brothers, who documented the construction of the original Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge.

YOUNG: Well, we should remind ourselves, too, when this bridge was so heavily damaged by the earthquake in 1989, people died. And so in many ways, this rises as a memorial to them, and it's these workers who are making it rise. I'm looking at one of your photos. It's one of my favorites. In the foreground, we see these huge spans of almost orange-like steel with a worker hanging off a harness working on that. But in the background, there's another steel shaped that shrouded in fog. It's apocalyptic or something. What was your sense of seeing this rise?

BLUM: Well, I went to the bridge, you know, many days a week for - all the way back from when they get soil samples for test pile. So for me, this bridge project has been 15 years long. Every day, I was awed by what people did to make this job from the most mundane task to the milestones when, you know, when it got a lot attention. But for the most part, the men and women who built this bridge went about their work every day, sometimes eight, 10, 12 hours a day, in all kinds of weather, under - whatever conditions. And they just came and put the bridge together.

YOUNG: Well - and we have one on the line. Kevin Karber's home is Concord, California. He's an ironworker who was a foreman on the bridge for three years and one of your subjects. Kevin, are you there?

KEVIN KARBER: Hello.

YOUNG: What do you think about this, guy, Joe Blum, who is - let's face it, Joe, he's aging from 60 to 72? As he documents this, he wants to go up there in these dangerous areas with you guys, Hanging off harnesses to document your work. What did you think initially?

KARBER: Well, the first time I've seen him, I was wondering, asked a few people who this guy was and they said, oh, he comes around here periodically and takes pictures of the progress of the bridge. We kind of made small talk and then the more we talked, the more he just kind of grew on me. And then after that, we just kind of became friends. And whenever he showed up and asked me questions or needed help or something, or I want to know where the hot pic was going to be of the day, I tried to help him out and take him up there with us. So he kind of earned his way into our trust, so to speak.

YOUNG: Well - and did the pictures do that in some ways because I'm looking at them again. I just described one that's huge and shows these huge spans. There's another one. It's a tight shot of a dirty, grubby hand pulling an orange handle down, and the hand is what you're seeing. What do you think the pictures say about people in your line of work, Kevin?

KARBER: It's very difficult. Work is demanding. It's not only hard on the body, but it can be very tough mentally. And by nature, we're hard on each other because everybody expects certain performances from the next guy down because, you know, one mistake or one lapse of memory on anything, you could die, you could lose a limb, you could be seriously, you know, injured for life, be crippled. There's, you know, there's all kinds of things that go into that.

YOUNG: Well, miraculously, it didn't happen on this project. I'm looking at another picture, Joe. Here's a worker hauling these huge cables, one on each shoulder, while tightroping, walking across another cable. He's all harnessed up. Were you ever frightened up there?

BLUM: Actually, I never was - I never was frightened. Kevin and all the other workers were always looking out for me. I didn't do anything like what they did. But I think the most beautiful thing about the new bridge is that not a single worker was killed in the construction of it. I watched them very closely. I mean I might have been a pain to be around, but I watched how the labor process was. Kevin, as the foreman of a gang, has to be aware of geometry, of organizing and supervising a gang of people, mostly men, who have various levels of skills that he has to be aware of.

He has to deal with the wind and the rain and the fog and all of those conditions. And at times I tried to put Kevin and his fellow workers, you know, with the - with this beautiful Bay Area here in the background, and also the old bridge, which has been much maligned(ph), but which I also think is beautiful and is a product of workers in the 1930s putting up...

YOUNG: Workers before them. And Joe, I just have to ask because people can hear it in your voice. You are not from San Francisco. You're from New York, Upper West Side. Your dad a stockbroker. I understand you went to Berkeley.

BLUM: Oh, God.

YOUNG: You studied labor relations. What draws you? You were a boilermaker yourself. What draws you to the worker from the Upper West Side?

BLUM: Well, I did work for 25 years...

YOUNG: Right.

BLUM: ...that was similar. It wasn't high work. But what I did realize in doing that work is that we take the built environment for granted. And so I wanted to show people in the world what went on behind the scenes and how their built environment was constructed by human labor.

YOUNG: That's Joe Blum, photographer who spent the past 15 years unpaid documenting the construction of the new Bay Bridge. Kevin Karber, again, the ironworker foreman who worked on that bridge, what will it be like for you to - not just pictures but to drive by every day and look up and that's your work?

KARBER: I've been looking at it this morning, you know, watching it. At the end of the day, it's just another job. But this one just happens to be special because it's going to go down in history. I was glad I was a part of it. It's another contribution that union iron workers have made towards building America.

YOUNG: Well, you had a hell of a scrapbook.

KARBER: Yes.

YOUNG: Kevin Karber, Joe Blum, thanks so much for speaking with us.

BLUM: Thank you.

KARBER: Thank you.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

And Robin, I've been looking at these photos at hereandnow.org. Just amazing.

YOUNG: They're amazing. They're also on exhibit at San Francisco City Hall. And when we come back, Jeremy and a pint-sized builder with Legos, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Jennie Patterson

    I can’t seem to get a slide show.

    • Rachel Rohr, Here & Now

      Hi Jennie, Web producer Rachel Rohr here. The way to access the slideshow is to click on the words “View slideshow” on the photo. If that’s not working for you though, it might be a browser issue, so perhaps try a different browser, such as Chrome or Firefox. Sorry for the trouble. Hope that helps. -RR

  • Edie Lungreen

    Wasn’t it Harold Lloyd who was hanging off the clock?

    • Robin Y

      YES!!! “Safety Last”. Thats what I get for grabbing an image out of thin air…
      Thanks!
      Robin

  • Mary

    Charlie Chaplin did not hang from the clock tower – it was Harold Lloyd in his movie Safety Last in 1923.

  • Deb Schild

    The actor hanging onto the clock was Harold Lloyd.

  • Richard Knause

    Passing under the San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridge when I was on the aircraft carrier CV21, Boxer, going to sea or returning was always a thrill. We made many trips through the bay. Thanks for the radio story with pictures on the web.

  • Genevieve Steidtmann

    Beautiful! I enjoyed both the interviews and the stunning photos. Great piece

  • Bill T

    I just hope that Joe will make a photographic book of his images. I would buy it in a heart beat and he should reap the rewards of his work.

  • Duffy Johnson

    I crossed the bridge a few times a week for over a year during the early period of construction. Two things happened every time: I always marveled at the view of San Francisco, and I always thought of the ’89 quake.

  • Muki Regunathan

    Joe Blum, brilliant and inspirational work sir. I can imagine the patience you have for having taken these speaking pictures over the last 15 years. Congratulations to the entire team for building this marvellous engineering miracle without a single loss of life. It happens only in America. Robin and Jeremy thanks for this lovely post.

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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