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A full story of the Fort Peck Dam construction photo

Fort Peck Dam construction photo

The famous picture of the Fort Peck Dam construction

This photo of the Fort Peck Dam construction has a huge story behind it. It was the gigantic construction project, part of the ‘New Deal’ program of President Roosevelt, that illustrated the whole decade of the 30s in the US. Also, this photo was a kick-off image for the just-founded magazine with a short name ‘Life.’ Who could know that this magazine and this photo report from the Fort Peck Dam will initiate the golden age of photojournalism? Take a look at some of the best Fort Peck Dam photos.

Fort Peck Dam construction was one of the 100 top influential photos in history, according to Time magazine. And here’s a brief story of the image, told by its author Margaret Bourke-White and some interesting facts about the Dam itself.

More iconic photos:

The Molotov man: the Nicaragua photos of Susan Meiselas

Swimming Mao Zedong, 1966

steel liner of the Fort Peck Dam

This steel liner will let tons of water through itself soon.

Life had began

“It’s not a new magazine. It is the beginning”, – that’s how editor Harry Luce explained the idea of the new-born Life magazine to the newbie photographer Margaret Bourke-White. After that, he assigned her to make a photo report from the construction of the Fort Peck Dam – the Fed backed multimillion-dollar project of the Columbia River Basin. Fort Peck Dam photos were planned as a cover story for the very first issue of the Life magazine, published on November 23, 1936. 

workers of the dam

Workers of the Dam spending their time in the area of extreme danger

By 1936, Margaret Bourke-White has already earned the reputation of one of the woman-photographer with a rare talent to capture not only people but a story behind them, a little piece of the lives. So, editors hoped to get not construction images, but a ‘face of the new government program in action, with economic ideas implemented by real people.’ They also instructed her to take some fascinating pictures for the cover, and it was an extra responsibility for Margaret. And what editors got in the result was a real surprise. Fort Peck Dam photos were a vast storytelling of ordinary people erecting the magnificent industrial object.

not so cheap rental as for depression times

Not so low rental prices as for depression times

The area around the construction was a pure frontier, that was much closer to the barren’s wilderness than to something’ fascinating for the cover shot’. Margaret decided to focus more on people who were constructing the Dam, rather than on the construction itself. Locals were pretty surprised when the photographer who was assigned to capture the Fort Peck Dam asked them to take some kids and gather inside of the bar for a Gold Rush bar image. But that was the nonviable sense of that project that Bourke-White felt, the flavor of the pioneers’ project to harness the harsh frontier. 

Dull street life in a town in Montana

Dull street life in a town in Montana

The photo reporting took just two days. Bourke-White noted that the LIFE’s assignments always had to be done at a very high pace, and sometimes he wished to have a few more hours to complete the story. But that was a reality of the journalistics of the 30s: the trip had to be completed upon receiving an editor’s telegram: “Get back asap.” But Margaret loved this rhythm: “Everything could be conquered. Nothing was too difficult. And if you had a hard deadline to meet, all the better”.

Some of these photos were not published in the first issue of the LIFE magazine.

Brotherhood of Dam workers, 1936

Brotherhood of Dam workers, 1936

Fact#1: The Fort Peck Dam is the highest of six major dams along the Missouri River

Wood coal sales in a Wheeler town

Wood coal sales in a Wheeler town

Fact#2: The Dam presently has a nameplate capacity of 185.25 megawatts

Wheeler, one of the towns around Fort Peck

Wheeler, one of the towns around Fort Peck, 1936

Spending time at the bar, frontier town around the Fort Peck

Spending time at the bar, frontier town around the Fort Peck

Workers on Montana’s Fort Peck Dam blew off steam at night, 1936

Workers on Montana’s Fort Peck Dam blew off steam at night, 1936

Fact#3:

Construction of Fort Peck Dam started in 1933, and at its peak in July 1936, employed 10,546 workers.

Ruby’s Place, the only bar with liquor

Ruby’s Place, the only bar with liquor

Ruby, second from the left, was the founder of the town of Wheeler—and its richest woman

Ruby, second from the left, was the founder of the town of Wheeler—and its richest woman.

These turbines will generate electricity soon

These turbines will generate electricity soon

Fact#4: The Dam, named for a 19th-century trading post, was completed in 1940, and began generating electricity in July 1943.

Mrs. Nelson, New Deal street cleaner

Mrs. Nelson, New Deal street cleaner

Men worked on the construction of Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

Workers on the construction of Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936.

men and women listening to the local jazz band

Men and women listening to the local jazz band

Entering the New Deal town

Entering the New Deal town

Fact#5: the Dam was severely damaged by “record-high runoff and flooding in 2011

Drinking with kids bar Finis

Drinking with kids at bar Finis

The construction site of the Fort Peck Dam

The construction site of the Fort Peck Dam

The dam, air view

A beautiful view of the Dam

Man at work, Fort Peck Dam

A man at work, Fort Peck Dam

The only beauty salon in town

The only beauty salon in town

Bar life, Wheeler, 1936

Bar life, Wheeler, 1936

 

 

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27 days ago

[…] A full story about this photo […]

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20 days ago

[…] image by Margaret Bourke-White during the Great Depression era. She was already well known for her Fort Peck Dam construction photo essay that settled in 100 most influential images in history according to Time […]

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