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  1. Visual Arts

Review: Panama Canal photos at MFA, St. Petersburg document amazing accomplishment

Ernest “Red” Hallen, gelatin silver print. It shows the operation of the Gatun Locks with the S.S. Allianca leaving the upper-west chamber June 8, 1914 and entering Gatun Lake.
Published Jul. 28, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG

The big summer show at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg is "My Generation: Young Chinese Artists," which is spectacular. There are other visual pleasure to be had there, too, such as the museum's permanent collection. Hanging out in the second-floor gallery devoted to works on paper is a group of 60 photographs documenting one of the most wondrous accomplishments of the early 20th century, the building of the Panama Canal on the narrowest stretch on land in Central America.

When it opened officially in August 1914, the Panama Canal was an engineering triumph that changed global commerce. The 48-mile canal was a safe route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that shortened the time to several hours from the weeks needed to round the tip of South America and navigate its treacherous waters.

The canal was 10 years in the planning and building by the United States. Before that, the French had tried unsuccessfully for more than a decade, beginning in 1881, to build one. Its cost was the equivalent of $8.6 billion today.

A government commission appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt to oversee the canal hired Ernest "Red" Hallen to document its construction beginning in 1907. This show represents a tiny portion of the 12,000 photographs he took before he retired in 1937. These are from the canal's earliest years.

The exhibition is divided into three sections: images of the great locks; those of the Culebra Cut, the most confounding part of the canal project; and scenes of Panama City and other government and residential areas. The first two sections show us directly the massive scale of the endeavor, the third section illustrates it by inference. Curator Sabrina Hughes often pairs images that show the same thing either at different points in time or from different perspectives so we have a more rounded sense of the scenes.

The engineering challenge of the canal was creating a waterway in an area that varied in elevation more than 80 feet. So the early, simplistic idea to build a sea-level canal never would have worked. Instead, a series of locks would raise and lower ships as they navigated the Panamanian isthmus. They were and are massive, but visitors never see the most impressive parts of the locks, the mechanisms hidden by the flow of water. Hallen's photographs of their installation give us that visual information. We also see lots of their surface operation. In one photograph, for example, we see the Gatun Locks at two different water levels with a lake in the background that supplied water for them.

Photographs of the Culebra Cut are the most dramatic. Culebra is a mountain ridge in the center of Panama, and a deep valley had to be cut through it and flooded to form an 8-mile channel linking the locks on the Atlantic and Pacific ends of the canal. In all, about 100 million cubic yards of earth and stone had to be excavated using huge steam shovels and dynamite. The major, unpredictable landslides that broke wills and bodies almost caused the breakdown of the project itself. The landslides had the mass and power to overturn and cover the giant machines used in the excavation, causing many delays and budget overruns. And, again, much of the cut is now underwater, so Hallen's photographs take us back to that time when it was a giant, deadly trench. One pairing of images shows a slide being carved out in February 1913 and the same spot in August 1913 with another large slide. The tiny figures of people give us a sense of scale.

Thousands of workers were needed, of course, and the housing, infrastructure and amenities for many of them were built by the U.S. government. The scope of that building project almost rivaled the canal itself, and Hallen's photographs document that part of the Canal Zone. An exception, not seen in this show, were the ramshackle villages many non-U.S. citizens, especially black workers from the Caribbean, had to put together on their own. And, it must be said, for all the magnificence of the Panama Canal, Americans were often insensitive at best and bullies at worst toward the Panamanians themselves. Panama City was outside the zone, but it obviously grew and changed with the influx of so many foreigners. The French, during their foray, had built many charming buildings, adding to the Spanish colonial architecture. The Americans didn't contribute much since all their facilities were in the designated zone area. But the city was upgraded, mostly for sanitation reasons, so we see a prominent city street before and after it was paved.

I am probably more invested in this exhibition than most visitors will be because I have been to Panama many times to visit family. The canal is a favorite place, and I recommend David McCullough's The Path Between the Seas, which tells the canal's fascinating story. Still, living in a time when I sense so much frustration, even impotence, over nations' inability to control their own fates or influence those of others, I enjoy glimpsing a moment in our history when anything seemed possible and actually was.

Contact Lennie Bennett at lbennett@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293.

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