My Favourite Pictures: The Great Iron Bridge (1779)

I’ve been a very keen photographer all my life, starting as a child with a box Brownie, then moving on to a large Ilford, which I can remember taking to the Farnborough Air Show several years running. Later I acquired other cameras, usually 120 or 35mm format, which I sometimes lost on digs, or in pub car parks. It wasn’t until I started working for the Royal Ontario Museum in 1969 that I started to cherish the cameras I was given, starting, in 1970 with a superb Nikon F, with a detachable photomic head (for any camera nerds who might be reading). I loved that camera dearly: it was easy to use and very durable; several times I left it on the Land-Rover wing and drove off – I even got to recognise the sound of it hitting the loose gravel in the excavation car park. On those early digs we also used Pentax Spotmatics and Olympus OM1s – both excellent, tough cameras. When larger format pictures were needed, I used various twin-lens and single-lens reflex 120 format cameras, all of which I still possess and am loathe to part with. Today I take my serious, ‘heavy duty’ pictures with a Nikon D300, which feels and handles very much like my last film camera, a Nikon F4. I used to take my big Nikons on Time Team shoots, but they nearly got smashed several times, when left on the side of the trench during filming; so for the past few years I’ve taken to a very rugged  little Olympus 10 megapixel, µ Tough. The pictures it takes are almost indistinguishable from those of the big D-SLRs. But that’s quite enough tekky-speak for this, and several future, blog posts.

I think it’s very important to have a solid theoretical understanding of photography, which is, of course, much the same whether one is using film or digital formats. As most of my pictures are of landscapes, I tend to favour slow film speeds (down to ISO 250 most times, unless the light is poor). To get decent depth-of-field I go for small apertures and the slowest time I can manage – say 1/60th. I know it’s becoming fashionable to use tripods, or even monopods, and I have several, BUT (and it’s a big ‘but’) I detest having to walk around people at almost every country house we’ve visited of late, who set their tripods up in the centre of narrow garden paths, where they block everyone’s access while they ostentatiously compose, and then take, a picture. I can say with hand on heart that none of the photos taken by me for The Making of the British Landscape, nor The Birth of Modern Britain involved tripods. If you can’t hold a camera steady at even 1/30th of a second then you’re in the wrong business. I think that for many posey amateur photographers the tripod is a symbol of masculinity. God help their poor wives and partners! I can imagine what they discuss at breakfast:

‘I’m so envious of Johnny…’

‘Really, darling, why’s that?’.

‘He’s so rich!’

‘So what. Money can’t buy you everything…’

‘Yes it can! I saw him in Winchester on Wednesday. Outside the Cathedral. And guess what?’

‘What?’

‘He had a Benbo 1!’

‘Is that good?’

‘Good? It’s massive. Has a huge extension – and it’s water-proof!!!’

But I digress. So I thought I’d do a series of posts about some of the photos I’ve taken over the years that may, or may not, have appeared in my books. So I thought I’d start the new strand with Thomas Farnolls Pritchard’s great iron bridge at Ironbridge, near Telford. As I think I said in The Making of the British Landscape, that bridge is, for me at least, the most exciting, the most magnificent building or ancient monument in Britain. Effectively it’s the very first iron bridge of all and instead of spanning a minor stream or somesuch, it tackles the awe-inspiring chasm of the Avon Gorge. It has had to be under-pinned in recent times, but even so, managed to stand completely unaided for some two hundred years, since its construction, back in 1779. The ironwork was produced at Abraham Darby III’s foundry at Coalbrookdale, nearby.

Originally we planned to have all the pictures in The Making of the British Landscape reproduced in colour, but then the bankers’ bubble burst, and our plans had to be curtailed. Most of the black-and-white images work quite well, but sadly I don’t think the two monochrome versions of the bridge were anything like as good as their colour originals, which I’ve added to this blog – plus an additional one for good luck. They were taken with a Nikon D70 (because it accepted the lenses of my old F4) and the underside view of the bridge structure was slightly tweaked in Photoshop, to lighten the shadows. As a rule, I try to keep such tweaking to a minimum. It’s worth noting here that the ironwork structure of the bridge was held together using carpenter’s joints, rather than the rivets, screws, nuts and bolts that were yet to appear on the scene, as regular features.

Anyhow, while I was working on those pictures for this blog, I determined to revisit it over the summer. Indeed, whenever I’m in the area I like to call in on Ironbridge to pay my respects.  But it’s not enough to view it from the car. I have to get out and walk across it. Just standing there, at the centre of the great arch, and staring down at the tumbling waters of the mighty Avon, is rich food for the soul.

Ironbridge, Shropshire.

Ironbridge, Shropshire.

Ironbridge, Shropshire.

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