Shaft, 2017 Credit: Harry Griffin

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Photographer Harry Griffin finds charm in the mundane and takes you to the places you didn’t know existed in his new exhibition, Vibrant Matter, Social Constructs

As the resident photographer of Bethesda-headquartered Clark Construction Group, Griffin spent the past 18 months traveling the country photographing Clark’s construction sites. Vibrant Matter, Social Constructs at Arena Stage is the culmination of his work, capturing stunning scenes while exploring the deeper social issues behind America’s infrastructure.

Intrigued by the isolated lives of construction workers, Griffin unveils the hidden operations behind some of Clark’s greatest undertakings—something most Americans will never be able to see. By taking viewers into tunnels or suspending them from buildings, the exhibition focuses on the process of a project rather than the outcome. 

“Vibrant matter” refers to what you can see in the showcase. Griffin capitalizes on the neon yellows, blues, and oranges in his work to bring whimsy and wonder to an industry filled with shades of black and white. Griffin’s ability to capture the bright beauty of seemingly everyday settings invites new perspectives on construction. “It’s funny because they’re not necessarily meant to be beautiful colors,” Griffin says. “They’re just meant to be visible for safety purposes.”

“Social constructs” is a bit of wordplay, referring to both the literal meaning of construction and the consequential impact that construction can have on its workers and on society. “Society is built by these invisible labor men,” Griffin says. “There’s usually walls or fences blocking these people from the world.” 

Laborers are sometimes physically barricaded from the rest of the world, and their work schedules and conditions are equally isolating. Working bizarre hours or on projects that could leave them underground for years keeps them out of sight and out of mind in society, with only the finished product to show for their effort. Griffin’s work, however, highlights the individuals behind the true building of America.

Two particularly captivating photos display the polarity between height and depth as well as natural and manufactured light in the construction industry. The first is a shot from below looking up through a hole in the ground to the clear blue sky as the arm of a crane reaches down into the space. In contrast, another photo captures men in a tunnel, highlighted by artificial light as cables and machinery encircle them. 

Photos on the upper level of the exhibition take a more intimate approach, showcasing specific tasks and actions of workers and making the vast sites seem smaller. In one shot, a worker carries a steel beam in front of a vibrant turquoise grid. Through eliminating background commotion, Griffin’s portraits allow viewers to feel connected to the workers as humans—not robotic pieces of the building world.

As only the second photographer to hold his position at Clark, Griffin became a certified onsite worker, fully equipped with both construction attire and photography necessities. He was given access to more than 80 sites in eight different states and D.C. Many workers had never seen a photographer onsite with them.  

Beyond displaying the magnificent hues and materials present in construction, Griffin’s goal was to tell the story of builders in his photographs. With close-ups of workers and all-encompassing wide shots of the mass sites, visitors can see the vastness of the industry while simultaneously focusing in on the role of the individual. Between the rock and rubble, Griffin’s efforts unearth vivid imagery and narrative using a lens through which we rarely see. 

1101 6th St. SW. Free. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.

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