When photographer George Steinmetz first gazed at Panama’s new canal, he was reminded of Margaret Bourke-White’s pictures of Fort Peck Dam, which graced the cover of LIFE magazine in November of 1936.
In both cases, the imposing structures are robust reminders of the power of human engineering. “When you look at the size of a man next to this massive technology, it’s pretty impressive,” says Steinmetz, who photographed Panama’s new lock and gate systems on the Caribbean and Pacific sides for TIME.
To accommodate larger vessels and increased maritime traffic, Panama has been building a new pair of locks on both sides of the canal. The $5.25 billion expansion project will double the canal's capacity and open in early 2016.
“I think I was asked to do this because my specialty is to take aerial photographs, and that’s the best way to get an idea of the scale of what’s going on there,” he tells TIME. “I went up with a wonderful pilot there, and we flew three times over the locks. I got lucky, we had some clear weather.”
While the gates are all in place on the Caribbean side, there was still one left to position on the Pacific side. “These gates look like huge books standing on their ends,” Steinmetz says. “They are put on these unusual self-propelled dollies that look like the back of a 18-wheeler truck. Instead, it has 80 wheels on it.”
The dollies are controlled remotely, and “they have a guy with a joystick driving them around,” he adds.
Panama is putting the finishing touches on a very elaborate undertaking. “They’ve been working on this for years, and now they are getting ready to activate the canal, so they have to get all this machinery out," says Steinmetz. "It’s a huge logistical ballet. It’s very impressive.”
George Steinmetz is an independent photographer and a frequent contributor to National Geographic and GEO.