Miami-based photographer Andrew Kaufman trades the painted walls of Wynwood for the expanse of one of the wonders of the world, documenting the Panama Canal in a new book.
A welder on the Panama Canal expansion, photographed by Andrew Kaufman in his book The Isthmus. The newly released book documents the project from its early stages through its completion in 2016.
“I liken it to one of those great WPA projects of the 1930s,” says Andrew Kaufman, citing the massive Works Progress Administration infrastructure projects that dotted America’s Depression-era landscape. “It’s an engineering marvel!” The marvel in discussion is the recently completed expansion of the Panama Canal, which roughly doubles the capacity of the more than 14,000 cargo ships annually passing through it, with new ocean liner-bearing locks as long as three Empire State Buildings laid end to end.
Even a seemingly jaded Miami native and professional photographer like Kaufman, long accustomed to both living amid and shooting South Florida’s sky-blotting towers of glass and steel, is impressed. Putting his sense of wonder into book form, Kaufman has just published The Isthmus, a collection of his photos chronicling the Panama Canal’s expansion at its various stages, beginning in 2004 and crescendoing with its completion.
The Isthmus is an aesthetic departure from his three previous books documenting Wynwood’s vibrant street art scene; Kaufman says he carved out personal time for the Canal while on assignment in Panama for a range of publications, from Time magazine to Germany’s Der Spiegel. Still, as awe-inspiring as the Canal’s scale may be, Kaufman says he was even more fascinated by the people dredging, pouring concrete, laying pipe, and bringing its blueprints to life.
“For me, the human factor is the overriding factor throughout the book,” he explains. “It’s easy to photograph construction. What’s not so easy to photograph is the everyday working man who’s waking up at sunrise and toiling away in that hot, equatorial sun.” Equally important, he adds, is that unlike the original 1914 Canal built by the United States, “the men and women of Panama were building the expansion. It was going to be a true Panamanian effort.”
That shift hasn’t been without its critics. The construction bid winner was dogged by charges of nepotism and corruption, followed by allegations of dangerous cost-cutting and ongoing safety concerns. Kaufman acknowledges the controversy but says he purposely avoided covering it over the 12 years he photographed it in his now finished book.
“I see myself as a historian just trying to show what happened on the ground, not pointing a finger,” he says. Indeed, throughout Kaufman’s book, the Canal’s construction crews are front and center—even as they’re increasingly dwarfed by their own handiwork. That same spirit is in play as Kaufman moves from the Canal into the Panamanian countryside, taking time to document rural life. As gorgeous as the terrain may be, it’s the people who live there that steer Kaufman’s lens. No less striking than his photographic composition is the technique behind it: predominantly black and white, and shot almost entirely on 35mm film.
“Film has a nuance and a subtlety that digital doesn’t have. It has a personality.” And for those who counter with the comparative ease of storing digital archives versus stacks of 35mm negatives, Kaufman is no less emphatic. “All hard drives fail; it’s just a matter of when. But that film placed in a drawer will never fail.” Andrew Kaufman will discuss The Isthmus on January 12 at 7 pm at The Leica Store, 372 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables, 305-921-4433