If You Do What You Always Done…


If You Do What You Always Done...

Investigating Clifton Suspension Bridge

... You Get What You Aways Got

There seems to be some debate as to who first uttered these immortal words (or something like them) – Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, various assorted motivational speakers, and also possibly the Reverend Ron Swisher of the Glide Memorial Church, Tenderloin, San Francisco (I know because a friend of mine happened to be there when he said it). 

As a sentiment though, I’ve always thought it has plenty going for it.  

The Clifton Suspension Bridge is in my home town of Bristol.  It’s an extraordinary structure. Finished in 1864, it was the brainchild of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who won a competition to design and build it in 1830, at the age of 24. Originally conceived to be the longest single span Suspension Bridge in the world, it spans the Avon Gorge over it’s narrowest point at Clifton, with a total length of 1352 ft, and a drop of over 300 ft to the river below. It was, and remains, a huge leap of engineering faith: Brunel’s own father (a renowned engineer himself) reputedly told him that without a central pillar, it would definitely fall down.  That it’s still standing to this day in its original form is testament both to Brunel who envisaged it, and the engineers who took on, modified and completed his designs 5 years after his death.

From a photographic perspective, though, it’s rather famously well trodden territory.  There are 2 or 3 very well known and (crucially) easily accessible lookout points above the bridge, which means you tend to see the same kind of photographs of it pretty much all of the time: you’ll probably know the ones, usually at sunset, the bridge spanning the Avon Gorge in the foreground, sometimes with or without balloons taking off in the background.

Very Nice, but…

… all a bit generic.  So when we settled in Bristol 7 years or so ago, I set myself a photographic challenge: could I satisfy my own curiosity and creative itch and find a fresh perspective on it, and photograph it in a way I hadn’t seen done before?  

My first thought was to see if I could find a different viewpoint, so I spent a fair amount of time walking all the way round, underneath, above, beyond, below, the other side of it, at different times of the day and night, in different weathers, and different states of the tide.  And I came up with this:

A misty morning low tide view from the reverse angle, one which I hadn’t seen before, and which I particularly liked for its historical context.  But I still felt something was missing.  So on my next visit, I tried a different tack: in particular, I started photographing it using ICM and Multiple Exposures.  

I particularly became interested in what might happen if I made the bridge less a specific destination in its own right, and more a starting point for discovery and exploration; less as a subject, more as a springboard.  For ideas, for visual metaphors, for suggestions of senses and feelings, historical and geographical context, and more…

The resulting photographs are some of the fruits of the project to date.  Taken at various points over the last 6 years, they encompass many absorbing hours, spent in the company of the River Avon as it winds its way to the sea, and the extraordinary creation that hovers hundreds of feet above it. 

A version of this article first appeared in the December 2020 Issue of ICM Photography Magazine.