Jeffrey Burgess DDS is a retired dentist who is passionate about the field of photography. He enjoys taking his own pictures, as well as viewing the works of others. He is particularly captivated by a new exhibit called “Peter Stackpole: Bridging the Bay.” The show runs through January of 2014 at the Oakland Museum of California.
The exhibit is focused on a series of pictures taken by Peter Stackpole. As a 21-year-old, Stackpole rode the ferry from Oakland to San Francisco, where workers would congregate before heading out to work on building the Bay Bridge. Stackpole joined the workers one day, shimmying along cables and climbing great heights in order to take pictures of these people as they did their jobs. He did this continually, snapping shots of the people at work. By 1936, the construction on the bridge was finished and Stackpole had created a series of legendary photographs.
Burgess explains that the new exhibit is the first time that the museum’s full set of bridge pictures has been shown together since they were first acquired. It took curators two decades to gather 20 images for the collection.
Drew Johnson, OMCA curator of photography and visual culture, explains, “We’ve brought them out one or two at a time, but this will be the first time they will all be gathered together in one place.”
Jeffrey Burgess DDS explains the significance of the photographs noting, “The article underscores that, for the photographer, when the opportunity presents—even in the face of danger—overcoming fear can be the difference between so-so images and great work. Peter Stackpole also provides a visual lesson on the importance of chance in creating art.”
Photography experts agree, noting that the Leica Model A was often referred to as a miniature device, since the camera was so small. However, it would have been nearly impossible for Stackpole to complete his project had he needed to lug around the bulky Ansel Adams-style box camera and tripod that were commonly used in that era. In a way, the small, unsophisticated camera made the work possible.
Despite its huge results, there were many who were skeptical of the camera’s abilities. Even Stackpole’s father, who was a famed sculptor and painter in San Francisco, stated, “That thing can’t make art.” However, Stackpole was determined to prove his father and others who doubted him wrong.
Even more amazing than the equipment he used to create such shots was Stackpole’s bravery. Johnson notes, “He never had official authorization to do this work, which is kind of amazing. As you can see, he was right up there with them risking his neck.” As long as Stackpole donned a hard hat, however, the workers were okay with having him alongside them during their day’s work.
Though the photographs have become a significant part of California culture, Jeffrey Burgess DDS states that it is important to note that Stackpole was a relatively inexperienced photographer when he made a name for himself through the pictures. Jeffrey Burgess DDS explains, “It is not necessary to have fancy equipment to create great photography. Stackpole’s camera was a Leica Model A, a camera that was not considered to be the best for image generation at that time. It was, however, perfect for climbing. So cell phone camera users take heart; even they can be used to capture and create artistic reality.”
Jeffrey Burgess DDS explains that Stackpole, though inexperienced, had a major impact on popular culture because of his work. He landed a spread in Vanity Fair in 1935. Someone involved with the San Francisco Museum of Art spotted the works in the publication, and then displayed them in a show at a museum in the Veterans Building, before the bridge had even officially opened.
From there, the publicity kept coming. Jeffrey Burgess DDS explains that the show got the attention of Henry Luce, who was the founder of Time, Inc. He ended up hiring Stackpole to shoot 26 cover stories for his new magazine called Life. Stackpole was able to build a career that was substantial, as well as a testament to his dedication to his craft.
The 21 bridge images, which include two that feature the construction of the Golden Gate, were printed and signed by Stackpole in the 1930s. Most of the images are the size of a sheet of paper, which was standard during this time. Stackpole also included descriptions of the pictures, which he recorded as part of an oral history. These words now accompany the shots on the wall.
Some of the captions include “ I shot this on my first day,” which sits next to the opening image, taken in 1934. Others include, “I got on one of the piers that held up the towers. Just two long pieces were in place here” and “I discovered ways of just hanging around long enough so they got used to me. And then when I’d raise the camera to my eyes, they wouldn’t look at me. They just went about what they were doing.”
The lack of eye contact allowed Stackpole to grab more poignant and natural images. One such image is captioned, “Deep in contemplation, a crew goes home after hearing the news of a fatality. The man in the middle with the gray cap (later) lost his life.”
“The bravery of young Mr. Stackpole has left us with powerful images that endure through the years. The shots are bold and breathtaking, and deserve proper recognition. For any history buff or photography enthusiast, this display is sure to be a must-see,” notes Jeffrey Burgess DDS.
Jeffrey Burgess DDS is a retired dentist who has a passion for writing and photography. He has used his talents in these various areas to publish a number of articles and journal entries that discuss topics pertaining to dentistry. Dr. Burgess received his DDS from the University of Washington Dental School in 1973. From there, he received his MSD in oral medicine at the same school. He founded his own dental practice, called South Sound Oral Medicine, in 1987. When it opened, the office was the first private oral medicine practice to accept medical insurance. Due to the success of the original firm, he was able to open satellite offices in Redmond, Washington and Hawaii. The business was purchased from Dr. Burgess in 2005.