Skip to main content

Publication of the first edition of The Bridge in 1930 was also the occasion for the debut of Walker Evans as a photographer. Photos by Evans, in fact, appeared in not only the deluxe limited edition released in March from the Paris-based Black Sun Press (directed by Harry and Caresse Crosby) but also the trade edition published in New York in April by Horace Liveright and reprinted in a second impression in July. Moreover, each of these printings had its own exclusive photos or photo. However different these photos were from one another, they had one feature in common: all were designed to exoticize the Brooklyn Bridge – to emphasize its "modernist" angularities, its resemblances to other more aggressively modern examples of architecture like the skyscraper. As photographed in several pictures by Evans, the bridge sometimes looked like an abstract design, or a web of radiant lines, or a hard-edged form-follows-function machine, or a perch from which distant objects lost their familiar outlines, or a mysterious frame that left a dark slash across remote Manhattan towers. It looked, that is, like anything but the familiar object, completed in 1883, that efficiently carried pedestrian traffic, trolleys, and automobiles across the East River.

No doubt this presentation of a defamiliarized Brooklyn bridge was intentional. New Yorkers in 1930, if asked to nominate their best example of a handsome piece of modern architecture, would more likely have turned to the recently-completed Chrysler building or possibly the Woolworth building of 1913. Brooklyn Bridge, opened in 1883, was nearly half a century old. To view the Bridge as an artifact that was "modern" required some aggressive reconceptualization. Of course it is not Crane’s intent to celebrate that which is simply modern or radically new. The Bridge is explicit on this point: both the subway and the airplane (or "aeroplane," as Crane spelled it) brought problems with them that offset any of their innovative value. The Brooklyn Bridge was offered as an example that negotiated a position midway between tradition and novelty, the stable and the exploratory. And that, in fact, was what it also represented architecturally, as Alan Trachtenberg notes. Responding to a critical review by Montgomery Schuyler in 1883, in which Schuyler scorns (among other things) the flatness of the roof at the top of each pier, Trachtenberg explained that Schuyler was pointing to

something significant about the bridge. Unavoidably, it embodies two styles of building: the masonry, good or bad, is traditional, while the steel is something new. To be recognized as architecture, structural stone must be carved into a familiar shape, while the steel, unburdened with precedents, could take whatever shape its function demanded. (Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol, pp. 87-88)

The Brooklyn Bridge itself stood at a midway point between old and new. It could represent, then, by invoking itself as an example, the value and propriety of "connection," of continuity.

Evans’s pictures, however, portray an object that is more stylish than anything else, an object that hovers dramatically outside any definition that portrays the bridge as inherently mediating. Indeed, it is not until the third photo that an identifiable outline of the Brooklyn Bridge emerges. And even then, when that third photo is compared with original negative it reveals that Evans has cropped out of the published photo the wooden walkway that was visible in the original. That walkway served to anchor the lamppost that now floats mysteriously to the right of the photo.

Further helping to present images that seem at once estranged from any obvious referent is the markedly diminished size of each photo. When the Crosbys lured Crane to the Black Sun Press they did so by promising an edition that would appear (as Crane boasted) "on sheets as large as a piano score, so none of the lines will be broken" (letter of 26 February 1929 to Charlotte and Richard Rychtarik). The Crosbys obliged with a page that measured a generous 8˝ by 10˝ inches. If so large a page necessarily emphasizes the small size of the photos, so notable a proportional difference must have been intended. The photos were reproduced in sizes that were actually smaller than their original negatives (which were 2˝ by 4 Ľ inches): more precisely, the first photo is 1ľ by 3 1/16 inches, the second is 1Ľ by 2 5/8 inches and the third is 2Ľ by 3 inches. These were not photos that were blown up but shrunk down.

The images they offer, then, are dramatically obscure. Among the photographs Evans retained from this period can be found several that were taken at the same time as the photograph selected to be the first. These were snapped from a position exactly below the bridge, at water level, as a tug slides by with a ship alongside. In all of these, the underside of the bridge cuts a dramatic swathe down the exact center of the photo, but in some, that underside is a background against which puffs of smoke appear. In others, the prow of a ship is visible as it emerges against the distant pier on the Manhattan side. The photograph that was chosen from all these, however, was one which most withheld the identifying characteristics of the ship passing beneath.

Of all the photos it is the second whose obscurity suggests deliberate wit. The Bridge isn’t part of the picture, we realize, because we stand on the Bridge to look down as a tugboat ferries a load of railroad hopper cars. But that image is remarkably abstract as it cuts a broad diagonal across the front of the photo. The flatness of the image is especially striking. Anything like a graceful or dynamic presence is definitely missing. Nevertheless, we now, in fact, are standing on the very Bridge that symbolizes grace and dynamics.

That very Bridge is at last on display in the third photo, but even here there is as much abstraction in the photograph as there is a straightforward set of references. The double towers reveal arches that are suggestively phallic. The cables of the bridge become nets. The lamppost floats as if detached from any ground. Evans had photos that were more patently representative – a shot of the South Street piers with the skyscrapers of Manhattan in the distance, glimpsed through the distinctively twined cables of the bridge – but the photos that were chosen were themselves conspicuously angular and modernistic, deliberately nonreferential. Their modernism lent itself to the Brooklyn Bridge.

We do not know who chose these particular photos for either the Black Sun Press or the Liveright trade editions. All the principals with any say in the matter – Crane and Evans as well as Harry and Caresse Crosby – happened to be together in New York City in the fall and early winter of 1929 when the decisions were being made. No occasion arose in which an exchange of letters might occur, leaving a written record of a decision. About the exact positioning of the three photos, however, we have Crane’s explicit instruction to Caresse Crosby in a 26 December 1929 letter (after a sensational suicide by Harry early in December – a double suicide, actually, in which he and a sexual soul-mate expired together). Since Caresse had vowed to go on with the press, and the first order of business was concluding work on The Bridge, Crane wrote to her:

By the way, will you see that the middle photograph (the one of the barges and tug) goes between the "Cutty Sark" section and the "Hatteras" section. That is the "center" of the book, both physically and symbolically. Evans is very anxious, as I am, that no ruling or printing appear on the pages devoted to the reproductions – which is probably your intention anyway. (O My Land, My Friends, 421)

What Crane assures with this placement is the adjacency of image to text, photograph to poem. Indeed, Evans’s portrayals of the bridge could not get any closer to the physical words of the poem. His first photo stands directly across from the opening stanzas of "Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge" and his last photo stands directly across from the closing stanzas of "Atlantis," while the middle photo waits by itself, surrounded by white pages on either side, midway between two sections of The Bridge. With no explanatory text, they are presented as if they might seamlessly blend into the experience of reading. But everything about these photographs suggests that they might easily be invited into the depths of Crane’s poems. The Bridge as it appears within them, especially if we take the photos sequentially, appears only gradually; it is an evocative piece of architecture that these photographs are able to work with; and while it eventually reveals itself as an actual thing upon which persons might actually walk, it remains hauntingly and suggestively abstract, as if it could be allied with a number of other objects – as if it was also functioning as a metaphor.

In a 1972 essay on these three photos, Gordon Grigsby claimed a resemblance between them and the work of Alfred Stieglitz. Pointing out Crane’s admiration for Stieglitz (whom Crane had met on returning to New York in 1923), Grigsby describes the Evans photographs as "hard, somber, finely arranged compositions, almost classical in the clarity and restraint of their aesthetic" (5). Evans was not, however, a fan of Stieglitz, who had given Evans’s work a cursory glance when he made a pilgrimage to his studio. In 1929, as he wrote to a friend, it was the work of Paul Strand that struck him as most impressive. Was it Evans, then, who, when choosing the photo that would appear in the first trade edition, deliberately sought out an example that was decidedly less "classical" in its "clarity and restraint"? The photo that forms the frontispiece to the first impression published in New York in April 1930 stands in stark contrast to the Black Sun Press photos.

This version of the bridge, insofar as it is wildly adventuresome, seems designed to put to rest any doubts that the Brooklyn Bridge might be a suitably modern artifice. Its startling angle from below, its aggressive truncation of the topmost edge of the arch, its hint of powerful girders all suggest this bridge is an almost defiantly modern piece of work, more aesthetic than utilitarian, more sculpture than roadway. The photo conceives the bridge as launched into space. The dark line that surrounds the photo, as well as the unusual and somewhat dramatic placement of the photo at the very top of the page (in direct alignment with the border on the title page) further underscores a vivid, eccentric dynamics.

If this frontispiece was eccentrically dynamic, then was the frontispiece to the second impression an attempt to adjust for that? And why was another new photo required for the second edition (which appeared in July 1930).

Here is a composition that is the most securely balanced of all, mixing elements of identifiability with aspects of defamiliarization. At 4 by 6 inches, it is also the largest of the illustrations, the only photo to be expanded from the original, almost double the size of the negative (by contrast the previous photo was almost exactly the size of the negative). The arches of the bridge occupy the lower quarter of the photo, and the interior space formed by a left-hand arch registers itself in a strong upward thrust, against which the supporting cables of the bridge become visible as a skein of nets that play themselves out both near and far. Here the architectural power of the bridge is perhaps most evident. The lamp post in the third Black Sun Press photo, while acting to insert a note of delicacy against the heft of the twin black arches, also invited a sense of scale into the photo, thus suggesting that the bridge might also be a space in which to walk. This July 1930 version emphasizes grandeur over pedestrian accessibility through selective cropping. Originally, the photo offered not only a glimpse of the wooden walkway beneath the arches but also the catenary system through which the trolleys received electrical power. With these details cropped out of the lower ten percent of the photo, the bridge appears to rise effortlessly against the sky, as if following the prompt of its upthrusting – and defiantly phallic – arch. (A trace of the catenary remains in that enigmatic pole rising out of the bottom left of the photo.)

Unlike the three photos in the Black Sun Press, the two that appeared in the different impressions of the trade edition were positioned as frontispieces, at a traditional distance from the text. They were arranged, then, to serve a useful illustrative function, to acquaint an audience with some physical features of the Brooklyn bridge while at the same time introducing angles of approach that removed the bridge from its utilitarian setting and suggested its affinity with other works of art, with pieces of sculpture. What the three photos of the Black Sun Press edition built toward in their final photo – an image of the arches and cables of the bridge after photos that pointedly evoked the bridge without depicting it – was presented at the outset in the trade edition in a more conventional understanding of the value of the illustration.