If there was ever a year when you could overlook the visual drama of construction, 2020 was it. All the spray disinfecting, temperature-taking and fussing with masks; all the worries about the virus outside and inside the gates. Those are the themes that will dominate our collective memory. Face coverings became an important tool to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
But for those who did not previously have to wear them as a regular part of the work day, they could be an afterthought, a style statement or—more likely—a nagging, voice-muffling, heat-trapping distraction. You could endure the patch of fabric across the bottom of your face, but you couldn’t enjoy it.
Reading eyes became a new skill. And eyes are what distinguish some of the best images submitted to ENR for its annual Year in Construction Photo contest. Minus the companionship of noses and mouths, eyes inspire speculation about what the photo subject is thinking and feeling. There’s no smile, no grimace to point the way. In the stare of an ironworker in one winning photo, you imagine the accumulated angst of the pandemic building up behind the eyes.
In a year of headaches and irritants, there’s no way to know if being photographed is just one more.
In the photo of a project manager looking out from a project elevator—in the slideshow link above—viewers can only guess if it's worry or wonderment behind her gaze.
There is little direct evidence of the pandemic in the rest of the winning images beyond these two photos, but all contribute to the industry's collective visual impact. It’s in the splendid earth-toned soil clouds created by an explosive blast or in the sunless but still orange sky of a California wildfire: Even destruction can be striking.
There’s beauty in the subterranean sculpted walls of a rail tunnel, and in the light bursting through the top of a concrete box as another bucket of concrete is lowered on the crane line
In these shots, the crews are comparatively tiny daubs of yellow or orange; their safety vests are about all you can see. Yet flip ahead to the other photos, and you’ll find an audaciously unshy worker pulling aside his shirt to display how close to his heart his union membership is, in a beautiful inked tattoo.
Every photo snatches and saves an evanescent moment.
Will the two ironworkers, threading connections on the rust-powdered skyscraper steel, ever strike those poses in just the same way in a muscular tableau, when bolting up connections on the other side of the structure? Maybe. Will the sun find them as easily?
Will the worker hosing down the jobsite in another shot ever spray from exactly that strategic spot where the jobsite light and city skyscrapers array themselves behind him?
Will the laborers, in still another photo, form another "samba line" of site teamwork on the concrete hose the next day?
More importantly, will someone be there with a camera if any do?
In a year full of loss and emptiness, these bustling and poignant construction and engineering-related photos document the resounding victory of the human spirit and the willingness and resilience to press on with the work during the most challenged and heartbreaking year in memory.
By Richard Korman