Not many photo subjects look their most flattering while wearing the shade of vermilion known as International Orange. A nearly 9,000-foot-long exception is one of the world’s most monumental man-made marvels, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
Robert E. David (M.S. DSGN ’73) can not only name the pair who figured prominently in the decision to paint the bridge in that vibrant hue (husband-and-wife architects Irving and Gertrude Morrow), but for more than 36 years—and counting—has captured the color in some 20,000 photographs covering more than 1,000 assignments. It’s all part of the life of being the official photographer of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District.
David’s enviable vocation came to him as a complete surprise. With a bachelor’s degree in architecture and an interest in industrial design, David decided to pursue a master’s in product design at IIT Institute of Design, where he began to develop skills in photography as well as in the then new field of computer-aided design. After several years teaching a course he developed on computer applications in architecture and industrial design at the Kansas City Art Institute and the University of Kansas, David enrolled in the architecture doctoral program at the University of California Berkeley. He gave a copy of his term paper on the analysis of traffic patterns in the area of the Golden Gate Bridge to the district agency and was subsequently offered a position with the agency that combined work in graphics, architecture, and photography. David was ultimately given the position of design director.
“While I was working there for so many years, I found that the design services my staff and I offered at one time or another had applications to just about every department and person within the 1,000-member organization,” says David, noting that he is one of the employees with the longest tenure. “Evolving along with all of that was a lot of photography of various objects for historical purposes.” David has also photographed the transit buses and ferries that comprise the district.
While David’s most famous subject, the Golden Gate Bridge, continues to be the primary focus of his photography, he says he is never bored, as his bridge assignments have ranged from the picturesque to the informative. David estimates that 50 or 60 of his bridge photographs are scattered throughout Washington, D.C., and laughingly recalls seeing one hanging on the wall through an open office door during a CNN televised broadcast from the United States Capitol. Retired from his full-time duties in 2003, David now works part-time photo-documenting the bridge’s $400 million seismic retrofit project. Begun in mid-1990s, the project is estimated to be complete by 2015.
Constructed in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge is recognized by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the seven civil engineering wonders of the United States. The 7.1-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake of 1987, however, with its epicenter some 60 miles south of the bridge, caused the State of California to formulate new structural guidelines for all bridges within the state. In response to these guidelines, the retrofit project was begun.
A San Francisco native who lives in the house where he grew up within sight of the Golden Gate Bridge, David recalls that his strong and early interest in the bridge was rewarded with a special gift. After David toured the bridge in 1955 as a Cub Scout, his friend’s father presented him with a bound copy of the chief engineer’s report, originally issued in 1937.
“It had fold-out drawings of various aspects of the structure and as a drawing exercise, I would copy them manually,” David explains. “This book was my first memory of the bridge.” Coincidentally, as part of his job, David republished the text for the 50th anniversary of the bridge in 1987, retrieving some 200 original negatives and producing high-quality digital images for the new book.
To add to the rich historical legacy of the bridge that he has helped to further establish, David is hoping to participate in the development of a Golden Gate Bridge museum. To increase his knowledge of museum issues, he has been active in seminars and conferences within the national museum community. It is a way to build his own bridge connecting the Golden Gate Bridge’s storied past to present and future generations.
An exhibit of Robert E. David’s photographs is on display in the Gallery Lounge of Hermann Hall on IIT’s Main Campus January 26–March 15.