This week I had the pleasure of taking photos for a new client, and I think I may have shot some of my best work to date. Let me start by saying that it took a year to cultivate a relationship with this client before I was able to finally get out onto the job site, and it was worth every second. I have a vision for my business, and that vision is very simplistic, but most importantly, I believe it is impactful. I believe there is a very large piece of the puzzle missing when it comes to photography in construction. There is an image that has been circulating in my mind like crazy this week – see below:
Walk into almost any major contractor's office and you might see this photo hanging in their hallways. The Lunch Atop A Skyscraper wall mural features the classic photograph taken by Charles C. Ebbets during the construction of the Rockefeller Center in 1932. You can learn more about the photographer who took this photo here (https://ebbetsphoto-graphics.com/page/about-the-artist/#/page/about-the-artist/) which I greatly encourage, as this man has become truly a hero of mine.
Now what makes this photo so impactful? Well, just look at it! There are a lot of answers to that question but I am going to speak on why this photo is so impactful to me specifically right now. Every single day we pass buildings, bridges, skyscrapers, wastewater treatment facilities, pump stations, dams, freeways, you name it – and every day we (myself included) take for granted one very simple concept that glows at my core fueling my passion for construction photography; In the age of technology, it is no accident that we take this one concept for granted, but it is important to remember that although our technological advances continue to provide society with endless ways to conceptualize a vision, at the end of the day it is people that physically making that vision come to life; plain and simple. I built a bar in my house during COVID as a way to occupy my mind and satiate my affinity for fine spirits. This tiny little DIY’ers dream was a great way to safely dabble in the joys of putting my hands to work, but it holds no candle to what I see people in the field doing every single day to build this world for us, literally from the ground up.
I like to play a little gratitude game with myself when I enter a new building or structure, and it goes like this: I like to look down at my own well-manicured hands, and imagine what would it take for those hands to make that structure come to life? What knowledge and skills would I need to possess let alone brute strength to set the walls around me? The list of needs would collapse into a supernova of infinite visionaries, project managers, engineers, equipment operators, roofers, iron workers, carpenters, electricians, landscape architects – endless compounded levels of knowledge, experience, blood, sweat, tears, and the like. I can’t even put IKEA furniture together as a team with my husband; how thousands of people from every walk of expertise come together to make a construction project realized is truly miraculous when you think about it. It is miracles and brute strength working in tandem that bring these places to life – the places that make our everyday life one seamless succession of functions from turning the lights on at your home to opening the roof at T-Mobile Park. I am in continuous awe of [as the article I linked earlier so adequately put it] “ordinary men caught up in extraordinary circumstances”. It is this kind of photo that tells the story of how we got to the 31st floor of a building, and it’s this kind of photo that forges an emotional connection with not only the client but the end user. There is an entire section of the auto industry dedicated to customer satisfaction and confidence AFTER a customer has already purchased a vehicle – they assign a dollar value to this sector. Construction projects are no different – lasting impressions matter – how we feel about a project holds value.
I have always been a passionate person, and harnessing that passion is what I believe will make me successful, and in turn, provide my clients with a product that exceeds their expectations. I have seen this value realized when my client and I share the same vision and the same goals. Circling back to my opening sentiment, I had the opportunity to shoot under such circumstances this week when my client took faith in me, and set me free on the job - and in turn, I think I may have shot the best work of my career so far.
This client and I had several meetings before I ever set foot on the job. We discussed expectations and goals, but most importantly we discussed vision. Their project is a new high school in an underserved area of the Pacific Northwest. They understood the impact of this project and it was absolutely clear that their marketing department understood (and took very seriously) the impact of their assignment, which was to capture how this particular project was going to change the lives of the end user; the citizens of the surrounding area. They wanted to tell the story of this project, from the ground up. They wanted to capture the life of this building from inception to handing over the keys – a building “baby book”. A building this important needs to have a life of its own; when something has a story – it holds history. So often in the Pacific Northwest, we are torn between upholding the traditions of our well-lived in structures and the idyllic function of gentrification. This school can’t be just a building – it needs to have a life of its own, a story, something that can be handed off to the citizens of this area so they can care for it, be proud of it, and be proud of the people that worked so hard to build it for them. The photos I took this week reminded me of the photos that Charles Clyde Ebbets took during his contract at Rockefeller [please know that in no way am I comparing myself to CCE, come on now]; he knew the assignment, he took it very seriously, and the images he captured tell a story that has had an endless impact on American culture and the way we view and value the construction industry. All because my client and I shared the same vision, I was given the space and time to fully immerse myself on this job site and let the camera truly become an extension of the structure that was coming to life around it.
When you work in the industry, there is no shortage of internal and external circulation construction publications. There is always a good smattering of equipment and tool advertisements, a safety article or two, and maybe one or two featured projects. As cool as these articles are to read, they only seem to be shared within the social vacuum of contractors. As much as I am in the construction industry, I am also a tax-paying citizen and end user. Every time I receive a voters packet I always see the usual ballot items for increased levies for countless public works projects. Having insight into what these kinds of projects take to get the job done, I am always curious what my fellow civilians outside the industry might think. No one likes paying taxes, but we all love nice things in our community. In fact, nothing brings a community together more than the shared frustration of a run-down community facility or roadway that never seems to get repaired.
The point being is this; these dollars go out to bid and contractors pick up the work and then the thing gets built – but is anyone telling the story? When a roadway in my area closes for repair and disrupts my daily life it’s a grind for me as it is for my neighbors. I have to wonder if having the slightest insight into the story would allow me a better chance for understanding, and grace, and perhaps some relief from the daily frustrations I so ironically devote to the teams of people working their asses off to make this world function better for me. I pass these jobs, and see the contractor names and logos plastered on their job shacks and heavy equipment and get curious about what they must be doing that is so important they have to close the freeway on a busy Saturday when 2 Seattle sports teams and a concert are playing downtown. So I do what any normal person would do – I google them. And when I go to their websites, I see absolutely nothing about this job. I see nothing providing me insight, or satiating my curiosities for the work they are doing and where my tax dollars are being spent. I started to feel like a kid who was being left out of a very important conversation my parents were having in the other room about my future, and frustratingly never asked me to participate. What if the story read differently – what if I googled so-and-so contractor and in their “Featured - Projects” section was a living diary of the faces of the people bringing this project to life, with sweat on their brow and mud on their boots? Would that spark something in me? Would gaining some understanding and visually engaging with the photos of the people building this project change the way I felt about it? Knowledge is power so I like to think it would – just as the Lunch Atop The Skyscraper photo sparks a deeper respect and understanding for the industry – so should this.
By the way, here is Charles C. Ebbets taking the famous Lunch Atop The Skyscraper photo. What a badass.