There are times when standing among apparently infinite skyscrapers, apartment buildings, miles of concrete and steel or traveling through seamlessly interconnected subway systems, that it can seem easy to forget, New York City is a collection of islands. With the exception of the Bronx, New York City is surrounded by water on all sides. With all that water comes bridges! and lots of them. There are bridges made of stone, steel, concrete and wood. There are tall bridges, small bridges, long bridges and short bridges. Suspensions, trusses, arches, beams and combination’s of all kinds come together in a complexity almost unfathomable to bring the city together. All of those bridges have brought never ending inspiration to artists of all mediums including painters, photographers, architects, film makers, poets and many others.
The first time I crossed a bridge by foot in New York City it was the Williamsburg Bridge walking from the Manhattan side to Brooklyn via the pedestrian walkway. It was easily one of the most powerful experiences I had ever had in the city. As I began making my way across and I toke notice of the massive apartment towers to my left. They seemed so incredibly large looming at 20 stories or more. As I made my way up the gradual walkway I felt a feeling of rising up along side these massive structures. I was in awe that after 10 minutes or so, I had actually risen completely above them, looking down at their roofs from above.
I reached the first tower of the bridge and looked up at its massive structures in absolute disbelief. Its cables suspending from the trussed towers seemed too large to be real. Its lights seemed like runways to the moon. I looked back to the city. To the north I could see all of the city’s lights. I could see land mark buildings like the Empire State Building, Met life Building and the Chrysler Building with their brightly lit and very recognizable tops reaching for the stars in the night sky. I could see the Queensboro Bridge off in the distance. I turned to my left and to the south I saw the Manhattan Bridge, the beautifully lighted Brooklyn Bridge, lower Manhattan and Brooklyn all gloriously shimmering in the nights sky. I continued my walk across, quite overwhelmed by the massiveness of it all. I was completely in love. I wanted to walk all of the city’s bridges, I wanted to walk the bridges of other cities. Though I had crossed this bridge many times by car and train, for the first time I felt finally understood the inspiration and majesty of bridges.
I have since walked most of NYC’s major bridges as well as many smaller bridges, and bridges elsewhere such as the Golden Gate in San Francisco. My favorite is still the Williamsburg bridge because the walkway takes pedestrians above the traffic and trains. It is no secret though, NYC’s favorite has long been the Brooklyn Bridge.
I recently attended a lecture at the Museum of the City of NY entitled The Brooklyn Bridge as inspiration, gender and the Great Depression and More which coincides with the current exhibition running there Glorious Sky: Herbert Katzman’s New York. The lecture focused on the Brooklyn Bridge and the art it has inspired since construction began on it.
Richard Haw author of Art of the Brooklyn Bridge; A Visual history (Rutledge 2008) headed the discussion with the Artist Bascove, photographer Jonathan Smith, and Sean Corcoran curator of prints for the museum.
Sean Corcoran reviewed some of the Museums more notable prints of the bridge. His selection of prints was great. A real sense of time was conveyed as the first images of the bridge spires under construction were shown and Sean continued with slides of photographs from its first completion, the great depression and through to modern times. As Sean spoke about the bridges influence on photography I took note of NY’s ever changing skylines in the photographs. It was really amazing to see views of the bridge from places I had stood that were of a completely different time.
Photographer Jonathan Smith spoke about his “Bridge Project” photographs. Jonathan spoke about the difficulty of coming up with unique images and perspectives of New York City bridges since they are so endlessly photographed. One aspect which makes his work unique is his photographing of some of the cities less popular or well known bridges. He also spoke about some of the difficulties gaining access to some area’s to photograph. Jonathan makes use of objects which sometimes obstruct views of the bridges brilliantly making them one with the composition while not losing a feeling for the bridges. Jonathan’s work is really great. It takes us through time and space as we look at scenes of bridges in various weather, hours of the day, and times of year creating intense mood. Jonathan often juxtaposes the bridges against scenes of decaying piers, changing neighborhoods and people creating dynamic combination’s of the bridges and their surroundings.
The artist Bascove showed slides of her work of New York’s bridges and spoke about her process. Bascove a more than capable figurative and still life painter has painted many of the cities bridges and has several books of her works of these structures. Bascove’s work is beautifully colored and strikingly lit. Her work is teeming with enegry and excitement. She has a mastery over composition using dramatic perspectives and at times combining multiple angles to create views which challenge viewers to perceive these structures in new and engaging ways. Her lush landscapes coexist with the bridges which convey a sense of nature and man made structures living side by side in perfect harmony.
I was only briefly able to check out the current exhibit of Herbert Katzman’s work of New York skylines but for what I did see I was impressed and it definitely merits a visit back to the museum.
My art at its core is figurative and I believe it always will be but I certainly can appreciate the beauty of bridges in art and in life. Having spent the last 6 years working in a studio shadowed by the Queensboro Bridge and walking it regularly I have certainly considered more than once expressing her in all her beauty through art. Perhaps someday I too will express the art of bridges but for now I stand in appreciation and admiration of those who do.