Photography that's a labor of love

(CBS News) San Francisco's new Bay Bridge opens on Tuesday. Thousands of workers hefted the tools of their trade to make it happen . . . and moving among them over the years, a man whose only tool was a camera. John Blackstone has a view from the bridge:

The photographs capture soaring views from near the top of the new bridge across San Francisco Bay. But more often, the photographer focused his lens on the iron workers building the bridge.

Joe Blum - now 72 - has been documenting the construction for 15 years.

"I joke with people, I was a young man when I came out here when I started on this project," he said.

"When they started doing soil samples for the test piles for the new Bay Bridge, I showed up at the barge one day and they let me on," he told Blackstone. "And I've shot virtually everything since then."

His age never seemed to get in his way, as he maneuvered on scaffolding, catwalks and cables hundreds of feet in the air.

Blum said, "I think it's kept me young. I think the exercise is great. You know, the camera bag, when I bring it out fully-loaded, is 25 or 30 pounds. And [I] do a lot of walking, sometimes uphill walking, a lot of climbing up and down the scaffolding."

He took photographs as workers hammered bolts and wrestled with iron to create the elegant bridge suspended from a single 525-foot-high tower.

But as impressive as the structure is, it's the workers that Blum wants us to see.

"The engineers get credit. The designers and architects, they know how to get in front of the camera and talk about themselves," Blue said. "These guys do not at all -- and they're the ones who are taking the plans, the design, the prints, and turning it into a living structure of steel and concrete."

Blum's admiration for ironworkers grows from his own experience. He worked as a boilermaker and welder in San Francisco's shipyards for 25 years.

"What skills do the people who build this bridge have?" Blackstone asked.

"Well, obviously you have to, you know, be fearless in a certain way!" Blum laughed. "You have to be strong. You have to have stamina. And I think you have to have a certain mental and emotional toughness to go out there."

An ironworker rigs a rebar cage during construction of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Courtesy Joseph A. Blum

Blum admired the bridge workers, but how did they feel about him?

"There's been a lot of photographers out there," said iron worker Steven Batiste. "We really don't care too much for them, because they come out with a different attitude, almost treat us like animals in a zoo."

Photographer Joseph Blum. CBS News

Jerry Kubala, Jr., said "When it first started out, we were probably pushing him out of the way, you know? But he would get right in there and try to take the best shots, you know, of us working."

"You could tell early on that Joe was taking pictures of us," said Ed Meyer III, "and the struggles that we had every day."

Blackstone commented on one image of people on platforms who appear to be hanging in midair.

"When I first saw that, I was quite amazed to see them working off of floats - they throw these floats over the side and then climb over the side," Blum said. "Being tied off with their fall protection, but getting out there and, yes, I had pictures of the men swinging a hammer off of these floats, in which you would not believe somebody standing on this thing and hitting something with an eight-pound beater. It's almost like a trapeze going back and forth."

The new bridge, the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, replaces a structure built in the 1930s.

"I often try and get the old bridge in the background of my photographs," Blum said. "And somebody said to me, 'Well, why do you want that ugly structure in the back?' I see it as a beautiful structure. It was built with the technology and the understanding that they had at that time."