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Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg commemorates the centennial of the Panama Canal
Ernest “Red” Hallen (American, 1875-1947), Culebra Cut-Culebra. Cucaracha slide, looking east from Panama Railroad (March 1914). Gelatin silver print. Gift of Dr. Robert L. and Chitranee Drapkin from The Ludmila Dandrew and Chitranee Drapkin Collection.

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA.- Building the Panama Canal—Photographs by Ernest Hallen, on view from Saturday, July 26, through Sunday, November 9, in the second-floor Works on Paper Gallery, reveals a fascinating story. This technological marvel changed the world’s system of transportation and would have far-reaching economic and political implications. The canal, an impressive achievement completed in 1914, also became a lightning rod. The works in this exhibition date from 1904 to 1915.

Curatorial Assistant Sabrina Hughes is the curator of Building the Panama Canal. The Margaret Acheson Stuart Society is the Major Sponsor of all Museum exhibitions and educational programs. Bill Edwards Presents, Inc. is the 2014 Exhibition Title Sponsor, and the Tampa Bay Times is the Media Sponsor.

The approximately 50 photographs by Ernest “Red” Hallen (1875–1947) in this show observe the Panama Canal’s Centennial and focus on the dramatic changes to the area during its construction. In 1907, Hallen, at 32, was appointed the official photographer by the Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC), the American administrative body overseeing the canal. He went on to produce more than 16,000 images during his 30-year career. Until his retirement in 1937, his photographs were the primary means by which Americans and the world experienced this engineering feat. Many were published in magazines and newspapers.

Images of the Culebra (Snake) Cut or Gaillard Cut, the project’s most dangerous and labor intensive segment, comprise the bulk of Hallen’s work in the MFA’s holdings. Engineers and workers carved out a valley through the Culebra mountain ridge linking Gatun Lake and the Gulf of Panama and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Landslides endangered the lives of workers, damaged equipment, and delayed progress. It was a Herculean endeavor.

In addition, there are photographs of the construction of the Gatun, Miraflores, and Pedro Miguel Locks, which raise and lower ships between the main elevation of the canal and sea level. Photographs of the tugboat Gatun, the first to traverse the Gatun Locks on September 26, 1913, and celebrating spectators demonstrate the excitement surrounding this moment. The rushing water in images of the Gatun Spillway Dam conveys the monumental human attempt to corral the forces of nature.

Hallen’s images also capture changes in Panama City during this era. Notable examples are two photographs of North Avenue, before and after paving in 1907. He turned his camera to ruins of Old Panama, the first European settlement on the Pacific, founded in 1519, and to Taboga Island, which housed the ICC’s hospital and clubhouse.

These photographs not only document history, but are also striking in their own right. When the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented an exhibition of Hallen’s photographs in 1976, then Assistant Curator of Photography Dennis Longwell wrote that “in their blunt, rough beauty, they offer in abundance a gift unique to photographs: the magic that permits us to see again what has been hidden from our eyes—in this case by earth, water, and time.”

MoMA has a selection of Hallen’s photography in its collection. His images are also housed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and the Library of the United States Military Academy, West Point, as well as now at the MFA.

Building the Panama Canal is the fifth project spotlighting The Ludmila Dandrew and Chitranee Drapkin Collection. The Museum began collecting photography in the early 1970s, before many museums had the foresight to recognize the medium’s value. The collection has grown in number and stature over the years. The recent, generous donations by Ludmila and Bruce Dandrew and Chitranee and Dr. Robert L. Drapkin have taken the MFA’s photography holdings, now the largest in a Southeastern art museum, to an entirely new level.

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