Photographing the Forth Bridge

The Forth Bridge is an engineering masterpiece which has become an iconic symbol of Scotland. Innovative in style, materials and scale it marked an important milestone in bridge design and construction during the period when railways came to dominate long-distance land travel.

Financed by four railroad companies who wanted to connect Edinburgh to the rest of Scotland, the original design of the Forth Bridge was radically altered following the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879. Forced to reconsider their plans, engineers Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker devised the first multi-span cantilever bridge, which at 1,630 metres would be the longest railway bridge in the world. After eight years of construction involving 4,600 men, the Forth Bridge was officially declared open on 4th March 1890. Among the high profile guests at the opening ceremony was Gustave Eiffel, the civil engineer responsible for the Eiffel Tower, who had made his name designing bridges for the French rail network.

Evelyn George Carey, The Forth Bridge. Inchgarvie South Cantilver, September 21st 1889, © National Records of Scotland

The Forth Bridge drew the attention of photographers before it was even complete. During construction a young engineer called Evelyn George Carey was given privileged access to the site in order to make a comprehensive photographic record of the bridge’s development. It was hoped that this visual documentation would restore public confidence in British engineering following the Tay Bridge disaster. Carey took thousands of photographs of the bridge, often choosing to photograph from the same position. This resulted in a staggering series of images which shows the bridge growing  from isolated components to a fully joined up structure of impressive length and stature. These photographs remain fascinating over a century later, and are evidence of the revolutionary engineering principles used in the bridge’s construction.

Evelyn George Carey, The Forth Bridge. Two Seated Men Raising a Boy up to Demonstrate the Cantilever Principle, September 17th 1885, © National Records of Scotland

One of the most engaging of Carey’s photographs is this image of two men, probably the engineers of the bridge Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker, demonstrating the cantilever principle with the assistance of an apprentice.  When you look closely you can see that the boy’s weight is sufficiently supported for his feet to rise  off the ground – just as the cantilevers support the central girder of the bridge. Taken to assure the public of the strength of the bridge, it is still helpful in explaining the engineering principles which make this impressive structure possible.

James Valentine, Forth Bridge: Length 8296 ft, Height 354 ft, Spans 1700 ft

The Forth Bridge instantly became a popular subject for photographers at a time when tourism was growing and the popularity of postcards was gaining momentum.  Hundreds of different views of the bridge were produced as affordable photographic prints and postcards and its image became well known across the world. Among the photographic companies keen to profit from public interest in the bridge was Dundee based postcard manufacturer James Valentine. In order to trade on the impressive statistics of the bridge they often included the dimensions on the print.

Underwood & Underwood, Scotland's Pride - The Great Forth Bridge and the Highland Kilt
Underwood & Underwood, Looking through the Great Forth Bridge, 1896

The bridge also attracted the attention of another form of photography which was enjoying a boom period at the end of the nineteenth century. With its distinctive structure, the Forth Bridge made the ideal subject for a stereograph – where two nearly identical scenes were viewed together in a device called a stereoscope to create a single three-dimensional image. Stereographs made it possible for viewers to experience looking at the bridge, or even travelling over it, without even leaving home. To make the three-dimensional effect even more impressive the photographer often positioned figures in the foreground in order to emphasis the difference in scale between what was close to the viewer and what appeared in the distance.

Alfred G. Buckham, The Forth Bridge, About 1920 © Richard and John Buckham

In the early twentieth century the invention of the aeroplane brought a new perspective to photographing the Forth Bridge. For the first time the bridge could be seen from above, and its dominance over the landscape around it could be fully appreciated. Alfred G Buckham, a former RAF pilot, made a spectacular series of photographs of Edinburgh from above. In one, the Forth Bridge is shown reaching across the Forth and into Fife – its shape recognisable even from a considerable distance.

Dieter Appelt, Forth Bridge - Cinema. Metric Space 2004 © Dieter Appelt

In 2004 German artist Dieter Appelt photographed the Forth Bridge, but using a very different technique to anything which had gone before. Appelt had first seen the Forth Bridge in 1976. It had an immediate impact and he began to imagine a moving image artwork based on its construction. During a residency at the Canadian Centre for Architecture he returned to the idea, inspired by their archive of Evelyn George Carey’s documentary photographs. The artwork he produced is a dramatic photographic montage of the Forth Bridge comprising of 312 separate silver gelatine prints. Appelt first made a film of the bridge, and then used a pre-determined mathematical formula to establish set intervals at which to make single frame photographs. The resulting piece is a lyrical interpretation of an engineering masterpiece which combines photography, film, mathematics and sound.

The Forth Bridge became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015 in recognition of its importance to the history of bridge design and its place in the story of Scottish engineering. It remains a constant source of inspiration for engineers, photographers and the many people who travel across it every day.

By Louise Pearson, 18 September 2018