Peter Stackpole: Bridging the Bay
July 20, 2013–January 26, 2014

Featuring stunning black-and-white photographs chronicling the original San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge construction in the 1930s by American photographer Peter Stackpole, the exhibition Peter Stackpole: Bridging the Bay continues OMCA's ongoing series exploring contemporary topics in California through photography. On view in the Gallery of California Art during the opening of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in fall 2013, the exhibition of 22 of Stackpole's works from OMCA's collection connects visitors back in time to the bridge's first iteration and serves as a complement to the Museum's major exhibition on the San Francisco Bay, opening in concert with the new bridge and America's Cup. The son of California sculptor Ralph Stackpole, Peter Stackpole was educated in the San Francisco Bay Area and Paris, where he grew up under the influence of his parents' friends and peers such as Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston, and Diego Rivera. His appreciation for the hand-held camera and his technical expertise found a perfect subject chronicling the construction of both the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. An honorary member in the Bay Area's Group f/64, Stackpole's work appeared in Time, Fortune, U.S. Camera, Vanity Fair, and LIFE magazine, where he was an original staff photographer.


“Hey kid, why don’t you come out with us? You’ll get some good pictures.”

Asked of twenty-one year old Peter Stackpole by a worker on the unfinished Bay Bridge, this question began a two year adventure and launched one of the great careers in photojournalism. Like nearly everyone in the Bay Area, Stackpole had watched with fascination as the massive steel towers of the new bridge rose in the Bay. He accepted the worker’s invitation without hesitation, boarding a construction company boat despite having no official authorization.  The young photographer soon became a familiar sight on the towers and catwalks, risking his life alongside the bridgemen to capture dizzying perspectives of the bridge, bay and city.

The son of artists Ralph Stackpole and Adele Barnes, Peter Stackpole grew up in a creative community surrounded by family friends like Diego Rivera, Dorothea Lange and Edward Weston. He took up photography while a student at Oakland Technical High School, where he quickly became skilled with the new, compact 35mm cameras from Europe. On the Bay and Golden Gate bridges, Stackpole recorded every aspect of construction, from vertigo-inducing images that suggest the scale of the job to intimate moments among workers.  Loaded with engineering details, his photographs are also beautiful compositions, transforming steel and sky into industrial abstractions.

Stackpole’s bridge photographs caught the attention of curators and editors on both coasts, and in 1936 he was asked to join LIFE magazine as one of its first staff photographers.  He covered world events for the ground-breaking picture magazine for 25 years before retiring to his home in Oakland. 

In 1991, as he was preparing an exhibition of his work at the Oakland Museum of California, Stackpole’s house was destroyed by the catastrophic firestorm that swept through the East Bay Hills.  A group of prints at the Museum were saved from destruction but, aside from whatever he could hastily throw into the trunk of his car, much of Stackpole’s life work was lost.  Thankfully, vintage prints such as the ones exhibited in this exhibition remain for us to enjoy in public and private collections across the country.

Drew Heath Johnson
Curator of Photography & Visual Culture

A series of four videos shot on the eve of the opening of the Peter Stackpole: Bridging the Bay exhibition. Drew Johnson, Curator of Photography & Visual Culture, reflects on the stories of Peter Stackpole, including his own personal account of the Museum's role in helping to save a fragment of Stackpole's work from the Oakland-Berkeley hills fire in 1991.


The video series includes:

On Peter Stackpole: Photographing the Bay Bridge‪‬ (2:25 min)
Drew Johnson tells the story of how a young Peter Stackpole was informally invited to join construction workers on the Bay Bridge to photograph their work.


‪‪‪On Peter Stackpole : Oakland Hometown Boy‪ (:‬50‪ min)‬
‬‬‬ This video reveals how Peter Stackpole learned the basics of photography by bartering with a friend.


‪‪‪On Peter Stackpole : Innovation in Photography‪‬ (2:09 min)
‬‬‬ Drew Johnson explains how Peter Stackpole pioneered use the latest technology of the day - the 35mm camera.


On Peter Stackpole: 1991 Oakland-Berkeley Hills Fire‪‬ (2:40 min)
Drew Johnson gives a first-hand account of how Peter Stackpole narrowly escaped the Oakland-Berkeley hills fire while trying to save his life's work, and the role OMCA played in saving the photos on display today.