What do workmen talk about on their lunch break, sitting on a steel beam at the top of a skyscraper? It is both an intimate moment and a collective history, captured together by a photographer’s click. On one hand we see the men’s faces, full of fatigue and satisfaction; on the other, the epic story where they play a leading role: the construction of the Rockefeller Center, one of the symbols of New York City and of America’s rebirth after the Great Depression. In 1932, on September 19 to be exact, Charles Clyde Ebbets (the most likely author of a photograph that still hides a few mysteries) snapped the “Lunch atop a Skyscraper” that immortalizes the workmen during their break and created an image that is hard for anyone to forget.
It is this same magic that envelops the oil well fire fighter Paul “Red” Adair, soaked in crude oil as he struggles to put out a blaze in Kuwait’s wells with dynamite, photographed by maestro Sebastião Salgado. It is 1991, and this photograph becomes a poster for the first Gulf War just as it was coming to a close. There are other photographs by Salgado that depict work in a completely different way, not as a vehicle for development – as a form of desperation, where the poorest people on the planet struggle in a form of modern slavery, like the half-naked men he photographed covered in mud in the gold mines of Sierra Pelada in Brazil, where they toil in inhuman conditions seeking their fortune.
Thanks to the contribution of masters like these, photography has become a tool to narrate the evolution of professional know-how and the achievements of the human race. Be they snapshots in black and white, posed portraits, or stolen images of men as they climb sheer cliff walls, their strength lies precisely in their ability to represent the immediacy of a moment, but also of the absolute importance of the labors of mankind.
This representation of man also shows the importance of his work, as well as the passage of time, the social and historical context, and economic development. There are many photographers who through their work became eyewitnesses to the Industrial Revolution. And there are many that captured the golden age of infrastructure, when pioneers set out to build works that would become universal symbols.
The first images of railways and railways stations spring to mind, photographed in the 1800s by Edouard-Denis Baldus, or the images of London’s Crystal Palace by Philip Henry Delamotte, or Delmaet and Durandelle’s snaps capturing the most important moments of the construction of the Eiffel Tower. Or the work of Gabriele Basilico, one of the most well-known photographers of urban landscapes in the world. His reportages from Milan, Shanghai, Istanbul, Silicon Valley, Rio de Janeiro and Beirut are slices of life that bear witness to the story of today’s urban agglomerations.
All of these experiences offer yet more proof of how man’s challenge to realize epic infrastructure works has always captured the imagination of the world’s great photographers, because stealing those images means immortalizing an historic moment and telling the story of a world that is destined to change.
Cyclopica, a photographic voyage
From the shots by British photographer John Myers of crumbling abandoned factories in the U.K. to Sweden’s Mårten Lange and his portraits that tell the tale of the solitude of today’s white collar employees, photography is capable of capturing the soul of a moment forever and then letting us relive it each time we stop to look.
This is the idea behind “Cyclopica,” the photography exhibition organized by Salini Impregilo from May 1 to June 3 at Milan’s Triennale. The show will recount moments lived by people in distant lands and their epic adventures, and the unique experience of working with hundreds of other people to build a large infrastructure project. The men who opened a gap in the American continent to build the Panama Canal, or the ones who brought electricity to Italy, contributing to the country’s industrialization, thanks to the dams built by Edison in the remotest towns in the Alps (immortalized by director Ermanno Olmi), or dug tunnels burrowing hundreds of metres into the Earth show us how they work. And with their work they create a Cyclops, or those infrastructure giants that have helped entire populations grow.
It is through the relationship of man and the Cyclops – or between dwarf and giant, but also between wits and strength – that over 2,000 infrastructure projects come to life through Salini Impreglio’s history of over a century.
This relationship has been captured in over 1.2 million images and 600 videos, conserved in the Salini Impregilo archives, from photographers that the group relied on to convey its desire to talk about its evolution from its origins 110 years ago to the present. It was Antonio Paoletti and Guglielmo Chiolini who at the start of the 1900s were the first to preserve a record of life on a building site, highlighting ambivalence about the difference between the enormity of the structures and the human dimension – while still keeping man in the foreground. Armin Linke, Moreno Maggi, Edoardo Montaina and Filippo Vinardi took the same approach through the years right up to the most recent works.
Today these images are being shared with the public in a selection that takes the visitor on a voyage in time and space, through different historic epochs and to faraway countries.