Pictures from Panama – Celebrating the Centennial

Jonas Lie, The Gates of Pedro Miguel, 1913.  Oil on canvas. (West Point Museum Collection, United States Military Academy; Anonymous gift in honor of MG George W. Goethals  (USMA 1880), chief engineer of the Panama Canal)

Jonas Lie, “The Gates of Pedro Miguel,” 1913. Oil on canvas. (West Point Museum Collection, United States Military Academy; Anonymous gift in honor of MG George W. Goethals (USMA 1880), chief engineer of the Panama Canal)

Opening at the West Point Museum in early December 2014, the exhibition Pictures from Panama celebrates the centennial anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal and features a selection of artists who captured the construction of the canal in all of its glory and communicated the massive scale of this virtually incomprehensible feat of engineering to American audiences. This exhibition highlights a variety of paintings, prints, watercolors and photographs from the collections of the West Point Museum and the Special Collections and Archives Department of the United States Military Academy Library.

Ernest “Red” Hallen, Gatun Middle Locks. Construction of Center Wall, Looking North, from Upper Lock, February 15, 1911.  Gelatin silver print. (United States Military Academy Library, West Point, NY; Gift of MG George W. Goethals  (USMA 1880), chief engineer of the Panama Canal)

Ernest “Red” Hallen, “Gatun Middle Locks. Construction of Center Wall, Looking North, from Upper Lock,” February 15, 1911. Gelatin silver print. (USMA Library Special Collections and Archives Department, West Point, NY; Gift of MG George W. Goethals (USMA 1880), chief engineer of the Panama Canal)

Ernest “Red” Hallen, Gatun Upper Locks. View Looking North, Showing Progress of Construction of Upper Guard Gates in the East Chamber, August 5, 1911.  Gelatin silver print. (United States Military Academy Library, West Point, NY; Gift of MG George W. Goethals  (USMA 1880), chief engineer of the Panama Canal)

Ernest “Red” Hallen, “Gatun Upper Locks. View Looking North, Showing Progress of Construction of Upper Guard Gates in the East Chamber,” August 5, 1911. Gelatin silver print. [USMA Library Special Collections and Archives Department,, West Point, NY; Gift of MG George W. Goethals (USMA 1880), chief engineer of the Panama Canal]

The Panama Canal was the largest construction project ever carried out by the United States when it took over the endeavor from the French in 1904. When the canal officially opened on August 15, 1914, it was the pinnacle achievement of the American industrial revolution culminating in the connection of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The canal was beneficial both economically and strategically to the United States, opening a new route for international commerce, providing a more efficient means for our military to move from one ocean to the other, and positioning America as a dominant power on the world stage.

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.

Ernest “Red” Hallen, Close View of Slide at Culebra-on-the-dump. Looking South, June 1912.  Gelatin silver print. (United States Military Academy Library, West Point, NY; Gift of MG George W. Goethals  (USMA 1880), chief engineer of the Panama Canal)

Ernest “Red” Hallen, “Close View of Slide at Culebra-on-the-dump. Looking South, June 1912.” Gelatin silver print. [USMA Library Special Collections and Archives Department, West Point, NY; Gift of MG George W. Goethals (USMA 1880), chief engineer of the Panama Canal]

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