January 27, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

                                                       THE BRIDGE, 2010 : FINAL TIMELESS SEPIA VERSI0N, ANYTIME SINCE 1883

This week I'd like to ruminate a little on the value of history and the small ways that photographic exploration can allow a photographer like myself to both appreciate and comment on the past. The value of human experience allows us to see for ourselves and to both appreciate our own small part in the present while standing in awe of a historical monument that was built long before we saw it and will probably last long after we are gone, if not forever. It's one thing to contemplate Nature, knowing that it exists without, and even despite our presence on this world. It's another when we are confronted by a work of mankind, built by people very much like ourselves, but so stupendous that we seriously question whether our own age is up to these standards. As an artist, the need to observe and record our experience of such a monument to Man's achievement is balanced by the fear that we will not have anything new, much less important, to say.

                                                      THE BRIDGE, 2010 : NOT AS TIMELESS , BUT IT STILL COULD BE FROM ANY YEAR SINCE I WAS BORN

I have just finished "The Great Bridge" an outstanding historical work by David McCullough on the incredible story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge from 1869 -1883. I would recommend his poetic work of history to everyone, even if you don't think you could possibly understand the structural engineering involved. In that way it's a lot like "Moby Dick", which might spend a little more time on whaling than a modern reader needs to know. "The Great Bridge" is a very human story of a father and his son who achieve immortality despite death and crippling sickness. Alongside is the daughter-in-law. a woman who rose so far above her station that even the society of 1883 had to acknowledge her greatness even while they tried to ignore her example. McCullough concludes his volume by remarking that despite all of the struggles and scandals of Twain's "Gilded Age", that "in the end the bridge was beautiful."

I was born in Brooklyn in 1956, left New York for college in 1973, and did not walk across the bridge until the late summer of 2001. As a native New Yorker, forgive me for referring to the Brooklyn Bridge as just "the bridge", since in this case typical New York parochialism can be historically and artistically justified. I trained as an American historian, only to give in to logic until I pursued an even more quixotic economic journey into Architecture. So this book was right up my alley, but it stood on my bookshelf for decades. I finally picked it up a couple of months ago, searching for something  that could possibly be a little more uplifting than another tome on the War (kids, that's WWII). Part of the shock of reaching a certain age is realizing that the humble artifact you are holding is itself a piece of history, since this book was written over fifty years ago, long before David McCullough achieved fame as a "talking head" on television.. The paperback was no doubt picked up in a used bookstore in Bloomington, Indiana over forty years ago, and survived the great trek to Powell's in 1992, when I sold the twenty-seven boxes of books that couldn't possibly fit into our new apartment on the Park Blocks.

                                             THE BRIDGE, 2010 - IF I GO BACK, I WOULD STITCH SOME MORE IMAGES TO GET DOWN TO THE ROADWAY

These are a few examples of the images that I made on and off the bridge during my two walks across the bridge alone in 2001, and with Fran and Benjamin and Margaret in 2010. I somehow hope that you might feel that they look like Rich pictures, even though there have been whole volumes written solely on the art and photography of the bridge during its now 150 years on this earth. Far better artists than myself have tried to come up with their own interpretation of a monument whose iconic status resists a new image, even while it demands that you try.

The first image is a pretty standard symmetrical study which I daresay mirrors some more famous attempts that have wormed their way into my subconscious long before I strode across the bridge. It is amazing how much the light and even the position of the flag can affect the image, and this square crop for a coaster suffers from a lack of headroom. The original image was something like the vertical crop, also taken that day, although you can see that the flag is in a different position. The original is lost to history, another casualty of my lack of organization. I hope you agree that my use of sepia black and white tone is far better at conveying the historical nature of the structure than the straight color rendition. You would have to pay far more attention to detail than yours truly to be able to date this image with any accuracy at all. This is helped by the absence of the ground plane of the bridge, any background, and any other pedestrians or conveyances that might give a hint of the image's age. It is truly  amazing that untold millions of people have viewed the bridge from exactly this spot, with only the flag's position (and the number of stars) dating the photograph. I do think the image does suffer from the lack of a ground plane, since the extra room in the vertical is still mostly sky.


                                                                THE BRIDGE, 2001 : A BLACK AND WHITE STUDY IN SILHOUETTE

This is far more like it, although I would be truly fooling myself if I thought it was anywhere in the neighborhood of unique. I went for an assymetrical silhouette, which is based on my lack of a wide angle lens and my usual hasty exposure. But we make images long after we take them, and I deliberately restricted the view to only one part of one side of one bridge pier while lowering the shadows to obscure any detail on the pier itself. The color original is in no way of any use at all. While my first black and white conversion held more detail in the sky, I lost most of that in pursuit of a brighter, and even more graphic image. Those in the know will realize that this is a certain bridge because of the diagonal bracing tying the vertical supports together under one of the main cables. The image tries to convey the delicacy of this spider web contrasting with the solidity of the great black masonry pier.

               FRAN AND RICH, 2010

                                                       BENJAMIN AND MARGARET, 2010

Of course the bridge is bout people too. Here are four people -  two middle-aged ex-New Yorkers, and two new young people in the city, in 2010. Benjamin looks like he could easily pass for one of the workers who built the bridge.

                                                                NO DAREDEVILS ALLOWED, 2010 : FINAL VERSION

Here are two details from the bridge.The first seems almost quaint, a sculptural celebration of the idea that maybe pedestrians should stick to the promenade provided for them since the bridge was built. The barrier probably works, although it looks like anyone crazy enough to walk on the cable across the bridge could manage to climb around this whimsical doorway in the air.  The first man to supposedly jump off the bridge and live went on to star in a Broadway musical that celebrated his feat. The main cable pictured above, one of four, is more than 18 inches in diameter and is a wrapped combination of 15 cable clusters composed of thousands of steel wires. My father would occasionally take me to one of the   factories where he worked as a Plant engineer which made similar cables. These machines he was tasked with keeping running, no matter what, spun cables more than two blocks long and could take off a man's arm is he wasn't careful. The working conditions were absolutely Dickensian. Today you can buy a multi-million dollar condo in similar buildings fronting the Gowanus Canal, a Superfund hazardous waste site.

                                                                 WALK THIS WAY, 2010 : FINAL VERSION

The promenade is still there to allow pedestrians to cross the bridge, even though the horse-drawn caraiges and the cable-car railway is long gone. The original one-cent toll has also been forgotten. This recent super graphic serves to tell people where they should walk, something their great grandfathers would probably have deemed unnecessary if not condescending.

                                                              THE TWIN TOWERS FROM THE BRIDGE, 2001 : COLOR AND BLACK & WHITE


This last image, both in color (!) and black and white, illustrates how the bridge endures. I took this on my first journey across the bridge in the late Summer of 2001, on a visit to New York. I literally stood in the plaza at the World Trade Center while I decided whether to pay to go up; I had never had the opportunity. I decided that the sky was too gray to afford a good view, that I couldn't afford the admission fee, and that I could always go up the next time I was in town. So I had an incredible time walking across the bridge, for free, for the very first time. The next month the Twin Towers were gone, and this has became a somber historical image.

But the bridge endures, and it is beautiful.