The sheer size and scope of this project, even by today’s standards, seemed insurmountable. Ultimately, the waterway became a symbol of American pride and identity. The canal and its construction were mainstays of American discourse for well over twenty years. In order to document this marvel, artists, both invited and uninvited, visited the Canal Zone during construction and translated what they saw and experienced into a variety of mediums.
Most artists who visited the Canal Zone were given access to more iconic sites within the construction area to work. However, photographer Ernest Hallen was allowed unprecedented access to all areas of the site and, as a result, gave the American people an incredible perspective of the canal construction from start to finish. In 1907, at the age of 32, Ernest “Red” Hallen was appointed the official photographer of the Panama Canal project by the Isthmian Canal Commission, the American body overseeing the construction of the canal. Hallen remained on site until he retired from federal service in 1937, documenting every aspect of the construction, operation and the surrounding landscape at the Canal Zone. His resulting black and white photographs were published in the newspapers and magazines back home, which, for many Americans, were the only sources to witness the construction of this incredible engineering achievement.
Unlike the convenient and instantly gratifying digital photography used today, photography at the beginning of the 20th century was just beginning to flourish as both a documentary source and an art form. The camera, itself, was a bulky apparatus that had to be transported and set up from site to site. Additionally, the process to create a photograph was manually intensive and time consuming.Over his thirty-year career, Hallen produced more than 16,000 photographs of the Canal Zone and the surrounding environment. The images are remarkable because they thoroughly document the canal construction and offer great insight into the redevelopment of the landscape, construction methods, use of the completed canal and the life of the Panamanian population in the Canal Zone over a span of thirty years. Hallen would often return to the same area on multiple occasions to photograph the progress made at a particular site. While the photographs primarily served a documentary purpose, they are raw, highly dramatic images, which, intentionally or not, are beautifully artistic in their composition.
The small selection of Hallen’s oeuvre featured in the exhibition Pictures from Panama at the West Point Museum is from the collection of Major General George Goethals, chief engineer of the Panama Canal and a West Point graduate (Class of 1880). Goethals’ collection of Hallen’s photographs is the most comprehensive and complete set of Hallen’s work, comprising 45 volumes of images, all printed by Hallen, himself. Goethals gave this wonderful collection to the Library at the United States Military Academy. The photographs provide superb visual insight into the construction of the Panama Canal and are great examples of American photography.
*Pictures from Panama opens at the West Point Museum in early December 2014. Please see the Museum Facebook page for exact dates and times: www.facebook.com/westpointmuseum.
Contents contributed by Marlana Cook, Curator of Art, West Point Museum