Skip to main content
Skip to main content

Photographing the Forth Bridge

Social Share links

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. Perhaps inevitably, the imposing structure drew the attention of photographers before it was even complete.

Alexander Adam Inglis The Forth Bridge late nineteenth century

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.

After eight years of construction involving 4,600 workers, the first train crossed the Forth Bridge on the 24th of January 1890 and the bridge was officially declared open by the Prince of Wales a few weeks later, on the 4th of March. 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.

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.

This year, we have been lucky enough to welcome a number of images of the bridge to the collection as part of the MacKinnon Collection of photographs, joinly acquired by the Galleries and National Library of Scotland with support from the Art Fund, National Lottery Heritage Fund and Scottish Government. A selection of these images are shown below.

Unknown The Aberdonian Express on the Forth Bridge late nineteenth century
James Valentine In South Cantilever, The Forth Bridge 1860s-1870s
Unknown The Forth Bridge late nineteenth century
Alexander Adam Inglis The Forth Bridge late nineteenth century

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.

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.

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

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.