DOCUMENTING PRESENCE Panama Canal Portraits 1909 - 1955

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Arthur Lucchesi and wife at Gatun Lock Construction



Gift of Joan Speiser

At the beginning of the 20th century, photography was gaining in popularity as a documentary and art form. Portraits were taken, trips were recorded, and both the mundane and extraordinary were immortalized on film. Yet unlike today’s instant and portable digital cameras, the equipment was bulky and required extensive setup and exposure times. However, capturing lasting memories of the time and place made the hardships worthwhile.











56-A-2 (1208) San Blas Indians Visit Miraflores Locks, Canal Zone



Gift of the George and Mayno Walker Family

In 1904 the United Stated embarked on the epic construction of the Panama Canal. This enormous feat captured the imagination of the world, luring entrepreneurs, dignitaries, tourists, and artists alike. During the ten year construction, amateur and professional photographers took thousands of photographs documenting the work, workers, and visitors. Everyone wanted a tangible record of their time at the Panama Canal, whether it was a carefully taken photograph, shop purchased souvenir, or medal indicating years of labor on the construction.









William L. Sibert

From Travel and Family Photo Album of

William L. Sibert


Gift of Bill Angrick

As construction progressed and international publicity increased, so did visitors to the Canal. President Theodore Roosevelt famously visited in 1906, becoming the first president to make an official diplomatic tour outside of the continental United States; in 1909 William Howard Taft followed suit, although as president-elect. In addition to state visitors, casual tourists arrived in droves at construction sites traveling on special tour trains. These visitors, too, found it important to have themselves photographed in the presence of the Big Ditch. Arthur Lucchesi, himself a Canal employee, and his wife had their photographs taken while visiting Gatun Locks in 1910 and again in 1911. Florence Neville Miller, who was also related to Canal employees, was photographed around the same time as she toured active construction sites, examining work materials, posing with equipment, and generally appearing to enjoy her travels.






A.G. Bedell

Photograph, No. 141

From Panama Canal Negative Album



Gift of Kenneth Roth

Whether the photograph is of a laborer, visitor, employee’s family, or visiting celebrity, more often than not the vantage point of the photographer captures not only the subject but also the impressive size and vast landscape of the Canal. The visiting subjects also stand in sharp contrast to the dangerous and dirty work being performed. Their pristine white clothes remain immaculate and their stance appears at a safe distance, although they surely had to cross difficult terrain to reach their locations.

Today the equipment is smaller and the photographs shared more broadly, yet these early glimpses of captured moments helped to create a lasting image of an incredible feat.

This online exhibition is based on the exhibition of the same name that was presented at the Tampa International Airport, March 19 - September 30, 2015.

Curated by Lourdes Santamaría-Wheeler | Designed by Elizabeth A. Bouton


Unless otherwise noted, all items are from the Panama Canal Museum Collection, Special & Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida