The Bridge Camera
Dave Frieder Takes Medium Format To New Heights...Literally

We're tempted to start off with, "This man is a professional, don't try this at home," but we won't. First because, strictly speaking, Dave Frieder isn't a professional--photography is a passion, but it's not how he earns his living. And second because we would never discourage anyone who wishes to pursue a dream, photographic or otherwise. If there are bridges near your home and you want to climb them and photograph from their tops, well, if you've got the nerve and the right permits and permissions and lots of insurance, go right ahead. Essentially, that's just what Dave Frieder did.

An enthusiastic amateur shooter from the time he got his first camera at age six (a Brownie Holiday, he remembers), Frieder soon became pretty much a 35mm man--until his father showed him a reproduction of Ansel Adams' classic image, Moonrise, Hernandez.

"My Dad said, `Look at this gorgeous photograph,'" Frieder says, "and I looked and said, `Oh, yeah, that's interesting.' At first it didn't have a great impact on me. But I kept looking at it and pretty soon I was thinking, this is an amazing photograph, how do you do something like this?"

Frieder began by learning more about Adams, then learning more about the larger formats. "I wanted to see what I could do, so I started working with 21/4, then larger and larger formats. I realized that 35mm wasn't doing it for me--I wasn't going to get those Adams-like results, that clarity and detail."

Greatly influenced by Adams and deeply into large format, Frieder took photographic workshops with John Sexton, who had been Adams' personal assistant. "One day John Sexton showed me a black and white photo he'd taken from the top of the Golden Gate bridge. He'd taken it with a 4x5 camera, and I said, `Wow, this is an incredible photograph!' Then I found out that Ron Wisner had taken his 8x10 camera to the top of the Golden Gate. This fascinated me, and I said to myself, where are there more bridges than in any other place in the country? Right, in New York City, which was practically in my own backyard. My favorite bridge was the George Washington, simply because I crossed it more often than any other."

The idea was really quite simple and direct: he'd climb a bridge with a 4x5 camera and see what he could bring back.

Of course, between the idea and the reality came tons of red tape. You don't just grab your camera and climb a New York City bridge--not unless you want to be the lead item on the six o'clock news. As in, "A photographer was arrested early this morning as he attempted to climb..."

What followed were months of "explaining, pleading, begging, asking, and supplying information" to the city's department of transportation. Frieder asked, "Exactly what do I have to do to get permission to climb and photograph?" And whatever the officials said he needed, he got, including massive amounts of insurance. "Of course," he says, "they asked if I had a fear of heights."

With all the permission, permits, and insurance coverage in place, it still took more months until arrangements could be made with contractors who were repairing the Manhattan Bridge. Finally everything was right, including all-important weather conditions. Frieder made his first climb with a 5x7 camera--and came back with blurry negatives. "Almost every negative that resulted from the first shoot was out of focus--because of vibrations from the traffic on the roadway below, which I didn't foresee."

The same thing happened when Frieder climbed the George Washing-ton Bridge. "Actually, it was worse because trucks are permitted on the bridge, and it's a two-level bridge--not one negative was anywhere near sharp. I tried all kinds of things to isolate the tripod and the camera, but nothing helped."

So how come John Sexton got a great, sharp photograph from the top of the Golden Gate? The answer is in the nature of New York City. "There's not a lot of commercial traffic on the Golden Gate," Frieder says. "Actually, there's not a lot of traffic at all at certain times of day. But New York bridges are busy all the time. John Sexton said that when he was up there, there was almost no vibration at all."

Frieder decided to scale down the camera's size. "I thought, how about if I use medium format? Not 35mm, because the negative, I felt, was too small for the kind of detail and clarity I wanted. So medium format was a happy medium, so to speak. I took a Hasselblad 2000 FCW--with the motor winder so I'd be able to concentrate on framing and not have to take my eye away from the finder to crank film. I imagined it would be less prone to vibration because I'd hold it and any vibration would, I thought, be absorbed by my body. I took one lens--an 80mm--and shot on T-Max 100. And still almost everything was out of focus--only one frame was fairly sharp. I was at a loss."

His next thought was that greater depth of field would mean greater sharpness, so Frieder got a 40mm lens for the Hasselblad. That helped, but the results were far from the crystal clear perfection he saw in his mind. Then he tried T-Max 400--"to gain an extra stop or so and a faster shutter speed. I'd seen comparisons of T-Max 100 and 400, and the grain increase was negligible, so I switched to 400. And it was a bonus--not only did I gain one extra stop, I found I got much better detail in shadows and better highlights. But it still wasn't sharp enough, it still wasn't 100 percent.

"Then I was looking through Shutterbug one day and I saw an ad for something called the Ken-Lab gyro stabilizer. Stabilizer! I thought, I'll give them a call and get information about this--maybe this will help. I thought it might be like the Steadi-Cam that film people use for motion pictures."

When Frieder explained what he had in mind, the folks at Ken-Lab--now called Kenyon Laboratories--were willing to help. "They said, `Sure, come on up here and try it out.' So I went up to Connecticut, put the stabilizer on the Hasselblad, got in the back of their truck and took pictures as they drove around." The test was, however, inconclusive. "Some of the pictures were in focus, some were not. I felt that there was no way to simulate the actual conditions on a bridge. So I called Ken-Lab again and asked if I could rent the unit for a day. They said, `How about you borrow it for a day and just pay the shipping costs?'"

And it worked. The pictures from his first bridge shoot with the stabilizer were sharp. "This was it! I couldn't believe it. I bought the gyro--it's the KS-8--and I've been using it ever since, about three years now, and getting great images."

Frieder still takes most of his images in black and white--his original inspiration was, after all, Ansel Adams--but he occasionally shoots some color on Kodak PRN 100 film. "I normally carry the Hasselblad with three magazines--two black and white, one color--and two Leica R5s, one loaded with color, one with black and white." Why color? "Well, while I'm up there, I feel I might as well see how the scene looks in color." In addition, Frieder, who earns his living installing and servicing x-ray equipment, has been hired from time to time to take photos for engineering firms and advertising agencies, and they prefer color. "A lot of engineering firms like my work," he says. "They're involved in doing a lot of work refurbishing and repairing bridges. A few have commissioned me to take photos for them, but most want the work that I do for myself because how I look at the bridges is different from how the engineers look at them, and they want to see that view."

Frieder's been the subject of several newspaper articles, including a featured piece in the "Public Lives" column of The New York Times. He was also featured on a New Jersey cable TV show and has exhibited his bridge photos in the New York area.

Along the way, he's become something of an expert on New York area bridges, and seems to take almost as much joy in the knowing as the photographing. He's quick to tell you that the Brooklyn Bridge marked a number of firsts--the first suspension bridge in New York, the longest suspension bridge for its time, and one in which the main cables were made of galvanized steel wires, not iron. The Williamsburg bridge, completed in 1903, was, he adds, the first all-steel major suspension bridge.

With so many bridges in the New York metro area, Frieder will be staying close to home for his bridge photography. "So far I've climbed and photographed 14 New York area bridges," he says, "and I'm shooting for 26 or 27--the total of what I consider well-known area bridges. So I have a long way to go."

And he'll go that way with the same equipment. He's still carrying the 2000 FCW, his primary lens is the same 40mm wide angle he first bought to give his photographs greater depth of field (sometimes he'll use an 80mm, also) and, of course, the gyro stabilizer is a constant companion.

"The thing about using the 40," Frieder says, "is that I've got to be sure the camera and lens are perfectly level. Otherwise I'll get converging lines, and I want to avoid that. I compose very carefully to make sure I'm level."

We wondered if the square format limited him in any way, if not having the option of vertical or horizontal composition was a problem. "Just the opposite," Frieder says. "Medium format enhances what I do--not only for the quality of the negative, but for the fact that the full frame, square format seems to fit perfectly in a lot of situations--or maybe it's just that my visions of the bridges and the city fit perfectly into the square." Not to say that he doesn't crop sometimes--but not a lot; full frame medium is what Frieder likes best.

Obviously this is a man without a fear of heights. Which is not to say there aren't things up there to be afraid of. He says he has no "scary stories," but was once almost attacked by peregrine falcons. "There's a nest box on the Queens side tower of the Throgs Neck Bridge," Frieder says, "put there by the environmental protection department when the falcons were on the endangered species list. Actually, several bridges have peregrine falcon nests in various locations. The first time I went up on that tower there were no babies in the nest, and the falcons were just very territorial. On my next climb I was told I couldn't go up on the Queens side tower because there were babies, so I went up on the other side, the Bronx side of the bridge. At one point I walked about halfway down the cable toward the Queens side--not intending to bother the falcons, just taking photographs of the bridge from that area, and as I got about halfway toward them the parents started their attack. They flew right at me, and one came within two feet of my head. As soon as I backed up, they stopped."

The nest boxes are still up there, and the falcons use them each year. Dave Frieder was quick to add that fact to his lore of New York City's bridges.