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From Ground Up, a Chronicle of Sweat, Steel

'Iron,' a book of photos by Gil Garcetti, pays tribute to the workers building Disney Hall


Scott Fitzgerald's famous observation that American lives have no second acts never really applied in Los Angeles.

But even here, the curtain seldom has risen on a shift quite as abrupt as that made by former Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti. His forthcoming book--"Iron: Erecting the Walt Disney Concert Hall"--signals his emergence not only as an accomplished architectural photographer, but also as an artist with a deeply empathetic connection to working men and women.

"Iron," which will be issued in November by Balcony Press, the Glendale-based publisher of fine art and architecture books, documents the work of the 130 structural ironworkers--129 men and one woman--who built the staggeringly intricate metal framework on which architect Frank O. Gehry's gleaming facade hangs.

The project, which Garcetti depicts in more than 130 oversized black and white photographs, involved 22 million pounds of primary steel joined out of 12,500 individual pieces that range from 13 inches to 110 feet long. No two are identical, and some weigh 165,000 pounds. Placed end to end, they would stretch 49 miles.

"This man Garcetti astounded me," said 92-year-old Julius Shulman, one of America's best known architectural photographers, who first saw the ex-D.A.'s work two weeks ago. "He is a great photographer. In all my 66 years of work, I've never seen such an exciting statement on the erection of steel. No one has done such a book before, and I think it is going to create a sensation."

No small tribute from the man whose career was launched by Richard Neutra's patronage and who Frank Lloyd Wright once praised for his unequaled ability to capture an architectural idea photographically.

In the early summer of 2001, about a year after losing an election to Steve Cooley, Garcetti, a passionate photographer for more than 30 years, happened to be passing the Disney construction site. He became mesmerized not only by the sculptural intricacy of the multistory armature rising above the street, but also by the men at working so strenuously and at such peril high overhead. He parked his car, took out his camera and began to shoot. He continued shooting until April, when the completed steel structure began to disappear beneath the building's shimmering skin.

"It was such a kick," Garcetti said. "I just enjoyed being there and getting to know these amazing guys. I thought I would just make the photos for myself and give them prints. But the ironworkers kept telling me, 'You've got to do a book about this building.' "

Gloria Gerace, who is overseeing the archival work on the project for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, asked to see the photos and urged the former prosecutor, now lecturing on race and politics in the criminal justice system at Harvard's Kennedy School, to take them to Balcony.

Garcetti's admiration for the ironworkers' craft is shared by Gehry. In the book's foreword, Gehry notes that while architecture has been transformed over the past 40 years, "the role of ironworkers has changed very little .... Rarely has high-quality steel fabrication been so crucial as with the Walt Disney Concert Hall."

What the ironworkers--whom he calls "the forgotten heroes of architecture"--put in place, Gehry writes, "is itself a work of art."

Their feelings are reciprocal. "I think Gehry is the ironworkers' hero," said Johnny O'Kane, who worked on Disney Hall. "Every ironworker likes a good challenge, and Frank Gehry throws an awfully good challenge."

Most of the workers didn't know Gehry by sight, but on one of his visits to the project, apprentice ironworker Cliff Neves was introduced to the Priztker Prize-winning architect and told him, "You made a crazy, fun building."

Garcetti set out to capture that spirit of adventurous labor, played out with elan and skill in the face of real danger. "In this country, we don't give craftsmen and tradespeople the respect they deserve," Garcetti said. "We don't respect as we should what we used to call the dignity of labor."

Part of the deep feeling so evident in Garcetti's photos of the ironworkers at their job stems, he said, from his modest origins. "My dad was completely uneducated but eventually became a barber. My mom went to high school, and she became a meatpacker. The first job I can remember wanting was garbage collector. They seemed to have such strength and agility. More important, my dad told me they made good money."

Garcetti said doubts about whether he had done justice to the ironworkers initially made him reluctant to publish his photographs. "In the back of my mind," he said, "I kept wondering whether these photos were really good enough. I didn't want the workers insulted by critics slapping my photos around."

According to Shulman, he needn't have worried. "When I saw first the prints of Gil's photos," he said, "I said to his wife that it's a very rare thing for any photographer to achieve this. I told him, 'Garcetti, you've been in the wrong business. Your life has changed forever and for the good. Leave everything else behind and take pleasure in the inspiration you're going to give so many people.' "

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