How I Got the Picture: Stephen Mallon’s Working Class

Posted on September 19, 2011

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A Bridge Delivered from stephen mallon on Vimeo. To view, enter the password 300002011s

The Willis Avenue Bridge in New York City was originally constructed in 1901 to span the Harlem River, connecting the boroughs of Manhattan and the Bronx. In 2005, the New York City Department of Transportation decided to replace the aging structure, which had become too costly to maintain. The old bridge was sent to Jersey City, where its steel was melted and its concrete turned into landfill. A new bridge was built at Port of Coeymans, on the Hudson River 136 miles north of New York City. At 350 feet long, 65 feet high, and 77 feet wide, the new bridge required two tugboats to move it down the Hudson. It was taken first to Jersey City and, on the morning of July 26, 2010, it was towed up the East River to its final destination. The bridge, which cost $612 million, opened for business on October 2, 2010, the latest piece of New York City’s vast network of roads, tunnels, and bridges, a physical symbol or urban connectedness.

What some saw as infrastructure, however, Stephen Mallon saw as art, and a symbol of America at work. Mallon is a Brooklyn-based photographer who has built a promising career by focusing on the industrial landscape. He has created art projects by documenting the salvage of U.S. Air Flight 1549 from the Hudson River and the delivery of a Concorde supersonic airplane to the U.S.S. Intrepid museum in New York. (His work, represented by The Front Room Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has been featured at the Verge and Fountain art fairs in Miami.) He has also shot commercial and editorial work for clients like Maytag, Microsoft, Forbes, and Fortune magazines. He is repped by Working Works Artists.

Mallon’s work harkens back to the heroic industrial landscapes of Margaret Bourke-White and Charles Sheeler, who glorified American steel and found art in its industrial muscle and smoke during the Great Depression. That particular sense of beauty—a celebration of daring, and design—has during recent decades largely been relegated to corporate annual reports. Today, with a U.S. unemployment rate of 9.1 percent and political crisis of confidence over the nation’s economy, Mallon’s imagery offers a decidedly uplifting viewpoint. In his pictures, American industrial muscle is back—in a modern way.

A New York City subway car being recycled as an artificial reef

The abstract beauty of an oil refinery

“It shows the muscle, without being obnoxious about it,” he says. Mallon has documented the building of a Coney Island roller coaster and the recycling of New York City subway cars to build an artificial reef in the Atlantic Ocean, as well as oil refineries and huge warehouses.

Documenting the salvage of U.S. Air flight 1549 from the Hudson River

Flight 1549's control panel, photographed during the salvage

Among his influences he cites the industrial landscape photography of Edward Burtynski, but one can sense the differences between the two. Burtynski’s images–vast Chinese factories filled with faceless armies of workers, black mountains of discarded tires, bright rivers of industrial runoff—are cautionary tales of man’s industrial footprint on the natural world. Mallon’s work is a more hopeful view of what used to be called “progress.” At its best, the imagery reflects the grit and ingenuity of a people and a nation whose work is also a mission.

Bridge Work

That sense mission is certainly on display in the project Mallon created about the Willis Avenue Bridge. Mallon conceived the project after consulting with executives at Weeks Marine, the company that brought the new bridge down the Hudson and up the East River. (Weeks also salvaged Flight 1549.) But he realized early in his planning that the project was an opportunity to update a traditional photographic documentary into something new.

“This came about because of the pressure of changes in the market where everyone is pushing for video content,” says Mallon. “I wanted something to help my transition from still photography into motion.”

Working with a crew of 12, Mallon positioned digital 35mm SLR cameras at 22 locations along the bridge’s route. “I drove to every single location and set up the camera–here’s the lens to use, here’s the shot I want. And using GPS on our cell phones we could schedule a crew to be there to shoot as the tugs towed the bridge past the camera,” says Mallon. “And with a couple of the shots, I would tell the cameraman to pan 90 degrees as the barge passed, following it, get it going away.”

Over the course of the bridge’s journey, Mallon and his crew shot some 30,000 still images, all in RAW format, which he then processed in Adobe Lightroom and output at QuickTime clips. “The file sizes were gigantic—you’re looking at something with the resolution of an IMAX film,” says Mallon. He then turned the material over to Brooklyn-based film editor Princess Hairston. She and Mallon worked for five days to construct a four-minute cut.

The film, titled “A Bridge Delivered,” is being featured in a number of festivals this year, including the 24 fps Film Festival and the Woodstock Film Festival on September 21. Such are the rewards of work well done.

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