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May/June 2014

When you cross a bridge, it is the sweeping view or the rolling horizon that holds your attention, not the structure that makes the air solid beneath your feet. These wonders of engineering that cheat difficult terrain and smooth our passage are apt to be taken for granted. There are a few showmen—Sydney’s soaring Harbour Bridge, the romantic Rialto in Venice and London’s stately Tower Bridge—which are destinations in their own right. But there are many more dogsbodies that span rivers and ravines, stoically fulfilling their purpose.

For this photo essay Garry Simpson has captured bridges that have a quiet beauty. Some caught his eye during road trips between jobs, “not hero bridges, but ones off the beaten track”. We asked him to photograph a few more in England’s industrial north and the Swiss Alps—a land of mountains, valleys and exemplary engineering.

Simpson, who grew up at the other end of England in Bournemouth, was always a “right brain” kid, constantly drawing cartoons, mostly from “The Jungle Book”. His father gave him his first camera when he was 11. “A horrendous cliché” for a photographer, he admits with a grin. But the rest of his story is not so predictable. On leaving school in the 1980s, a creative career wasn’t an option for Simpson, so he joined the Royal Marines for eight years and hardly took a snap. Later, he realised that it was the power of an image on a recruitment leaflet—“six men in a speedboat racing through beautiful blue waters with tanned faces”—that had persuaded him to join the armed forces. After leaving, he followed his visual instincts and retrained as a photographer.

His military experience certainly influences his artistic eye, he says. These landscapes give us a scene viewed from a distance, framing everything in sight. The habit could be a hangover from his days on duty at “observation posts”, strategically watching action from holes dug in the ground. The discipline of a marine also comes in handy with planning, logistics and those early starts to catch the dawn light and the crisp snowflakes on the firs.

Such pragmatism follows through to the finished image. Simpson likes to find a sense of order in his photographs. Perhaps these bridges, with their unfancy functionality, appeal to this side of him? He spends a lot of time searching for the right position for his shot. In the Alps, patience was a virtue—a 30-minute trek downhill was often rewarded with a view blocked by trees. And it was a longer scramble back up, only to descend again the other side. But little is left to chance. Once he finds his angle, Simpson will flip open his compass and calculate when the best light will fall over the scene. Then he waits.

Simpson still has that first camera, a Russian LOMO; as a boy, he would forget to wind it on and end up taking several pictures on one frame. These days he uses more technical large- and medium-format cameras, shooting on both film, which he finds “softer”, and digital, which is “more practical”. But when using digital on location, he says, you have to protect the highlights. The brightest parts of a shot can disappear on a digital frame, so you are left with a step between the light the sensors can hold and an empty whiteness for anything brighter. Film, which creates a more fluid image from an “organic mess of crystals”, is more forgiving. Irregularities can be fixed on a computer, but Simpson feels too much post-production lends a photograph a flat, video-like quality. Only planning and patience can deliver the natural look and “elevated sense of light” he demands.

These landscapes could be called cinematic. Simpson likens them to the “establishing shot” in a feature film. The wide-angle view. “Epic” is the word. The bridges are the main characters in these scenes, stamping themselves on the landscape and refusing to bend to its mercurial nature. Vast, brutal and beautiful. ~ LUCY FARMER

Simpson struggles to find a sense of order in India, where “every single bit of space is being used for something”. Yet he achieves it with this bird’s-eye view of the Old Naini Bridge, stretching into a haze of pollution, away from the makeshift festival of the Magh Mela Hindu pilgrimage

The slim features of the Sunniberg Bridge were designed to disappear into the alpine landscape. But its futuristic curve and stay cables look more “Blade Runner” than “Heidi”

In 1930 Swiss officials chose this design for the Salginatobel Bridge because it was the cheapest of 19 submissions. Simpson found a plaque which said that constructing the scaffolding took six men three months before the bridge was built over the top. The concrete was mixed on site and transported in wheelbarrows

This classic American vista captures the gleaming Glen Canyon Bridge wedged into a ragged, ochre rock-face in the desert. The only signs of life were a rest-stop and the lone RV, which says you must be on a road to nowhere

When the Humber Bridge opened in 1981 it was the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world. Simpson admires its brutal minimalism, and the way its concrete density appears to defy gravity, hanging in space

The Transporter Bridge—“the Tranny” to affectionate locals—has been shuttling vehicles across the Tees for over 100 years. An onlooker told Simpson the brash yellow gondola might be replaced with a modern glass one. But its cheery blue will remain—the men in orange suits clinging to the towers were repainting it

A triumph of design over pragmatism, the Infinity Bridge suggests fluidity and unity. When the river is still, the reflection completes the infinity symbol. For Simpson, this “show-offy bridge” jars with the area’s industrial heritage

This wrought-iron wonder once carried steam trains over the Mersey to Widnes. Simpson likes its “industrial-revolution feel”. Its lattice girders, rusting in places, are a reminder of Merseyside’s past as a hub of factories, warehouses and waterways

The Natchez-Vidalia Bridge carries three highways across the Mississippi. “In America,” Garry Simpson says, “this is a nothing bridge.” But he was so awed by its size that he asked his assistant to step into the shot for scale