In the world of transportation and preservation, I spend a lot of time around bridges, conducting resource IDs, evaluating the historic significance of these bridges and reviewing projects for any adverse effects to our historic bridges and adjacent historic resources. Anyone who conducts resources IDs in the field knows that photographing the project area and the resource is a vital part of documentation and research. Why are photographs important? By photographing particular elements of structures – whether buildings or bridges – it is possible to date the historic resource by construction methods and materials used. Architectural styles date buildings, but also date bridges. Railings, deck systems and truss types allow for dating bridges.
Most often, preservationists photograph buildings and districts, but not necessarily bridges. Just as it is important to properly photograph a building (all elevations, 3/4 shots, details, context), there is a correct way to photograph bridges. The Historic American Buildings Survey and the National Park Service have similar guidelines (your State Historic Preservation Office has likely adopted these same guidelines) for photographing architectural structures. HABS/HAER documentation includes (1) historical research, (2) measured drawings and (3) photography.
The Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) provides four main guidelines (see page 4) for photographing bridges. While these are somewhat vague, it is a good starting point and basic checklist. All bridges are different, so it would be hard to have one comprehensive list. Want some preservation jargon? We usually say “photo-doc” for short – obviously for photographic documentation. Up for some photo-doc? Let’s go through these four HAER guidelines with a variety of examples.
1. General views of all sides.
2. Detail views of portals, portal connections, upper chord connections, vertical members, traffic deck, bridge plates, manufacturer’s badge and any decorative features.
3. If accessible, the traffic deck support system (such as floor beams and stringers viewed from underneath the bridge).
4. Abutments and approach details.
And there you have it. In review, when photographing a bridge, remember to include
(1) all sides of the bridge;
(2) details such as connections, railings, plaques;
(3) the deck and piers – what supports the bridge from below; and
(4) approach details: the abutment, guard rail, endwall.
By all means, you do not have to be a professional to photograph bridges. Some bridges are beautiful and make quite the statement on the landscape and built environment. I don’t claim to be an expert; I’m always working to improve my documentation skills. Hopefully this gets you more familiar with bridges and ready to practice your photography on more than buildings. Enjoy!
P.S. A few safety notes. Climbing over, under and around bridges can be dangerous. Do not do this alone. Abutments, wingwalls and all sections of the bridges can be slippery and treacherous. Beware of swiftly moving waterways below. If you park on the side of the road, leave your flashers on and wear reflective gear. Do not trespass. If you photographing deteriorated or abandoned bridges, beware of holes in the deck and unsafe structures. Basically, use your common sense and be safe.