New York City’s East River Bridges — Fisheye Views

Williamsburg Bridge Fisheye 4 by Bruce Appelbaum

Attending elementary school in New York City in the early 1960s, I remember that social studies had a concentration on the history of the city. I enjoyed learning about how the city grew and have read many books over the years on the subject.

One thing that always fascinated me was the growth of the city and how the bridges connecting the boroughs were built over the years. I love photographing the lower East River bridges in particular: the Brooklyn Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge, and Manhattan Bridge in order of construction. I have little interest in the Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge or in the Triboro Bridge (both since renamed).

The Brooklyn Bridge (originally known as the New York and Brooklyn Bridge or the East River Bridge) was the first of the East River crossings built. Until then, Manhattan and Brooklyn were connected by a number of ferries, which were subject to delay or interruption due to weather and freezing conditions on the river. Originally conceived of in 1852 by John Augustus Roebling, construction did not start until 1869 and it was not opened until 1883.

Roebling lost his life during the development of the bridge due to an accident — his foot was crushed and he developed tetanus. His son, Washington Roebling, took over as the construction manager. He contracted the bends during the construction and oversaw it from his home in Brooklyn Heights — his wife was the conduit for communications in his place.

For a time it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. The roadway is held up by a network of cables and hangers — the bridge was overbuilt with the intention of lasting eternally. It carries six lanes of vehicular traffic; elevated train and trolley car traffic was removed in the 1940s and 1950s. A pedestrian and bicycle walkway is maintained (and often jammed with bicyclists and tourists), centered above the vehicle roadway. (See “The Great Bridge” by David McCullough for an incredibly fascinating history of the bridge.)

The Williamsburg Bridge (originally known also as the East River Bridge) was the second crossing built, further north, with construction starting in 1896, opening in 1903. At the time, it became the longest suspension bridge and the record was held until 1924. The original intention was for the bridge to be used mainly by trolley lines and railways; vehicular roadways were added and the rails were removed except for the subway tracks. The bridge now carries 8 lanes of traffic, two subway tracks, and has dual walkways on the north and south side for pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

Originally to be called Bridge Number 3 (as the third East River bridge to be built), construction on the Manhattan Bridge started around 1904 but it was not completed until 1909. It was designed to carry subway tracks across the river. An upper roadway was added in 1922. The upper roadway carries four lanes of vehicle traffic; the lower level carries three Manhattan-bound lanes of vehicle traffic, four subway tracks, and the bicycle (north side) and pedestrian walkways (south side).

New York City originally consisted of Manhattan and parts of the Bronx. In 1898, the separate city of Brooklyn was consolidated, along with Richmond County (Staten Island), the rest of the Bronx, and the western portion of Queens. Along with the new subway lines, the East River Bridges helped with the consolidation and the future growth of the city through the 20th Century.

Bridges are very dynamic structures. And they are living things – they sway in the wind, they bounce up and down with the passage of traffic, they bask in the sun, they make their own music, they are graceful and powerful, they are complex and complicated. I have made many straight photographs of these three bridges hoping that I showed them as organic creatures they are.

It is the last set of qualities – that they are complex and complicated – that I want to highlight in this essay. How better to show these than to deliberately add to those qualities through the use of a fisheye lens? Some time ago, I bought a Lensbaby fisheye to use with my Canon digital camera. The images shown here were made using that combination.

The accompanying photographs were all made with a Canon DSLR and Lensbaby 5.8mm fisheye lens. For those technically minded, the Canon cameras had APS-C sensors, yielding an effective focal length of about 10mm – but with full frame images. Multiple bracketed exposures were made and merged into high dynamic range images using Photomatix Pro.

As always, click on any image to see a larger version.