Photo of the Week
June 7, 2020



This week we have a really great photo of four movers and shakers of the Panama Canal.  This is the first photo I have seen with Ernest "Red" Hallen in the photo.  All the old Panama Canal photos with the black boarder on the bottom with a description were photos that Ernest "Red" Hallen took.

Like most photographers, Ernest ďRedĒ Hallen seldom was in front of the camera.  In this rare photograph, taken September 13, 1927, he is seen, at the far left in this photo. At first I thought the order of names was L-R until I did some research on the other men.  The others in the group and their titles at that time are: L-R  Ernest "Red" Hallen, Official Photographer, John.G Claybourn, Superintendent of Dredging Division; C.M. Butters, Assistant Engineer; and R.E. Snediker, Captain of Grader. The person who wrote the description in the black boarder should have put Hallen's name first.  There will be more about the other men in the future..

In 1907, Hallen was appointed the official photographer by the Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC), the American administration body overseeing the Canal. He produced more than 16,000 images during his 30-year career. The ICC wanted a systematic documentation of the work in Panama, however Hallenís images are more than mere documents. Until his retirement in 1937, Hallenís views were the primary means by which Americans and the world experienced the great engineering feat and documented one of the United State's greatest engineering accomplishments.  These step by step captures in time by his camera tell a magnificent story.

Images of the Culebra Cut (or Gaillard Cut) comprise the bulk of Hallenís work.  Engineers and workers carved out a valley through the Continental Divide ridge linking Gatun Lake and the Bay of Panama, and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In addition to the Culebra Cut, there are also photographs of the construction of the Gatun, Miraflores, and Pedro Miguel locks, which raise and lower ships between the main elevation of the Canal and sea level. Photographs of the tugboat Gatun, the first to traverse the Gatun locks on September 26, 1913, demonstrate the excitement surrounding the complex project.

Hallen did more than document the engineering and construction of the Canal. He also photographed changes taking place in Panama City during this time. Notable examples are two photographs of North Avenue, before and after paving in 1907. He turned his camera to ruins of Old Panama, the first European settlement on the Pacific, founded in 1519, and to Taboga Island, which housed the ICCís hospital and clubhouse.  

Before the film era and way before the digital era, photographic emulsions were made on glass supports, known as glass plate negatives.  I  spent hours in the basement of the Administration Building in Balboa going through the Hallen glass plate negatives that were stored there in filing cabinets.  My interest in the negatives during those days was to find potential areas to dig antique bottles and relics from the Canal Construction Days by studying where houses were.  I would write down the number of the glass negative and take the list to the Graphics Branch in the same basement to order prints.  These glass plate negatives were all 8 x 10 inch in size.  Because the glass plate negative was this large (compared to a 35mm negative) the 8 x 10 inch negative produced a very detailed and sharp image.  I can take one of Hallen's detailed photos today and scan it at 1200 dpi, I can zoom in and study in detail what is going on in the photo capture.

A thought just came to me.  How did Hallen carry the plate negatives when he would climb into or onto very remote and rough areas.  He had to be very careful not to break the glass or expose the chemical on the glass negative while taking the glass negative in and out of the camera.  He was indeed a remarkable man and historically significant in the history of the American Canal Construction and post construction. 

Hallen was awarded the Roosevelt Medal with two bars.  Medal #3074, Bar 1 #1884, Bar 2 #1299.  His wife was Maude Hallen and they had two daughters.  Hallen was born in 1875 and died in 1947.  Arrived in Panama in 1907.


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