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Feature: Stephen Mallon shoots a bridge's journey  
Wednesday, November 23, 2011 | by Eamon Hickey
stephen_mallon.jpg
Industrious: Photographer Stephen Mallon (Photo by Doug Menuez)
After more than 100 years of supporting, literally, every imaginable walk of New York City life, the Willis Avenue Bridge was ready for retirement.

For nearly all of the 20th century, it had stretched more than 200 ft/60m across the Harlem River, carrying over 70,000 vehicles a day (and runners in the New York City Marathon) between Manhattan and the Bronx.

But by the summer of last year, a new bridge had been built to replace it. Made of steel, the new structure—the section that actually spans the river, to be precise—is about 350 ft/105m long, 65 ft/20m high, and 77 ft/23.5m wide. It weighs nearly 5 million pounds (2.3 million kilograms).

There was one catch—the new bridge wasn't anywhere near the Harlem River. It had been pre-fabricated in a huge construction yard near Albany, New York and would have to be transported more than 100 miles to get where it was meant to be.

Heavy Lifting: Canon EOS 5D, 24mm, ISO 200, 3.2s, f/8. Click to enlarge (Photo by Stephen Mallon)

At this point, do you find yourself fascinated by the question, "How the &^%#$ do they do that?" Then you share something in common with photographer Stephen Mallon, who is making a career in significant part out of a drive to shoot the answers, for this and many other industrial projects.

In this case, the answer is they floated it, and Mallon made a fascinating time-lapse film of the whole operation. At the construction yard, which is adjacent to the Hudson River, engineers pushed the bridge onto two barges that had been welded together. Then the whole apparatus was towed by three tugboats on a stately trip down the Hudson, around Manhattan, up the East River, and into place on the Harlem River. Actual travel time totaled three days.

Mallon's four-minute time-lapse video, called "A Bridge Delivered," was created from more than 30,000 still photos shot over five days, beginning in the construction yard near Albany and ending with the obligatory speeches by politicians as the bridge was bolted into position.

The video is below, and has been password protected by Mallon. To view, enter the password 300002011.

Moving Pictures: A Bridge Delivered (Video courtesy Stephen Mallon)

Chasing barges

Mallon's unique access to the bridge was the result of his ongoing connection, formed several years before, with Weeks Marine, a large marine construction, dredging, and salvage firm headquartered in Cranford, New Jersey. Weeks had been given the contract to handle the waterborne portion of the bridge's journey to its new home.

"I had done a time-lapse project years ago but wasn't really happy with the results," Mallon says, remembering the day when Weeks told him they would be moving the bridge. "[I thought] the complexity of [the move] would be an interesting segue into another time-lapse feature. I've had a lot of thoughts about video. I'm interested in it. I wanted to move into doing video without having to take on a giant investment. It made sense for me to go in and shoot this as a great piece for my reel. So I started pulling everything together."

As an established commercial pro in New York and mentor to many young photographers, Mallon had a network of colleagues, assistants, students, interns, and associates he could call on. Ultimately, nine photographers worked in 22 different locations as camera operators over the five days of the shoot.

Typically, he had three to four cameras operating on any given day, but eight were running on day two. They were manned by several different crews shooting simultaneously and in sequence along the bridge's route in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.

The most surprising footage was shot on the bridge itself as it was moving in New York Harbor and up the East River. "We weren't 100% sure until the last minute, because of safety issues, whether we were going to be able to [be on the bridge]," Mallon says. "But the water was calm enough, so that was fantastic."

Photographer as director

Mallon acted, in essence, as the maestro of a camera symphony, conducting with a cell phone instead of a baton. "Part of the purpose of this was getting into the role of director and having some other people actually operate the cameras," Mallon says. "It's the director/producer role, and I'm loving it. My goal is to increase this exponentially, in both size and camera count."

Many shooting positions were pre-planned based on some location scouting coupled with Mallon's familiarity with New York waterfront areas, which he has gathered over several years of industrial shooting. Other locations were picked on the fly, especially on day one, when he and two assistants drove from spot to spot, staying one step ahead of the barges.

Mallon's shooting approach tended more towards the documentary, rather than the narrative, side of the spectrum. "I didn't storyboard it too much," he says, referring to the filmmakers' standard technique for tightly planning the scenes in a film. "But I did have the idea that I wanted to make sure there was a sense of closure. I wanted to make sure that we got the footage of the new bridge actually being put into place."

The cameras were all Canon digital SLR models and included the EOS 50D, EOS 5D, EOS 5D Mark II, and EOS-1Ds Mark III. When asked what lenses he used, Mallon says, "everything." In fact, wide-angle and wide-to-normal zooms predominated, especially the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, the EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, and the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM. Several of the cameras and lenses were rented or borrowed from colleagues.

Each camera was triggered using a Canon Timer Remote Controller TC-80N3 set to shoot one frame every five seconds. Mallon did not vary the shooting rate for the bridge time-lapse. In one or two scenes, where he feels his coverage ended up short, he would change that if he could do it over—in the film, the floating bridge zooms under the Brooklyn Bridge in a quick flash, for example. Mallon has begun to experiment with varied framing rates, tailored to the speed of different subjects within the film, in more recent time-lapses.

In addition to needing cameras to be pre-positioned to capture a subject traveling many miles, Mallon needed to shoot many scenes from different perspectives—i.e. camera positions—simultaneously. An elementary concept for filmmakers, of course, this allows the film's editor to vary the audience's point of view. The two factors together caused Mallon some logistical problems at a scale not normally faced by still photographers.

"The main issues were data storage and power," Mallon says. "When you start realizing that you're going to have six cameras all shooting simultaneously, and each camera needs to have 30 to 50 gigabytes of storage—it takes a lot of [memory] cards." Battery life, especially in the older cameras, is borderline when you require a camera to shoot every five seconds continuously for several hours.

"And you need a lot of lenses," he adds, noting that it took his mind, used to still photography with a single camera, some time to adjust to the fact that if you want three cameras shooting wide angle perspective from three different positions, you need three copies of, say, your 16-35mm.

"The thinking aspect that has changed," he continues, "is keeping in mind the storytelling over the span of time rather than a single frame. It's been a mental shift to let things unfold and not try to capture the absolute precise moment. But it's coming along. I think as things progress it'll be easier to turn that switch."

30,000 images. One film.

Asked about his workflow, Mallon says, "I've got it working, but it's clunky."

All the images were shot in RAW format. From the cameras, they were imported into Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3, where they were grouped into collections by shot location. In Lightroom they were cropped to the 16:9 HD video aspect ratio, edited to a finished state, then output as TIFF files at 1080p resolution (1920 x 1080 pixels).

The individual TIFF files, still grouped by location or scene, were then imported into Adobe Photoshop CS5 Extended using its image sequence feature, which joins a folder of files into what will ultimately be a video clip. Next, each sequence was exported out of Photoshop as a QuickTime movie using the Apple ProRes 422 codec. The movie files were then loaded into Apple Final Cut Pro for video editing ("cutting," as filmmakers call it). Mallon hired a video editor named Princess Hairston for the editing job, a decision motivated by a previous video project. "I had cut it myself, and as soon as I was finished with that, I said this is the last film I'm ever cutting. This is why people get jobs as editors."

A fascination with big machines

Mallon has always been fascinated by machines and industrial processes. "[As a teenager], I was at runways and construction sites running back and forth photographing the bulldozers. I'm still entranced by the industrial era. One of my ideas for solving mid-life crises is to build a giant sandbox where everyone can come and drive their own bulldozer."

After college, he began assisting commercial photographers doing still life, food, celebrity, and corporate photography. Embarking on his own, he pursued then abandoned fashion photography, then began setting up and shooting lifestyle stock imagery for a series of agencies, culminating with Getty Images, who signed him in 2000. "It was enough to keep me alive for a number of years," he says, "but the stock [photography] market tanked with the rest of the print market."

All along, he'd been shooting industrial landscapes on his own. In the middle of the last decade, he began transitioning more and more to industrial landscapes and "worker" portraits, which he shot for stock using hired talent.

About three years ago, he "took the plunge and shut off the lifestyle part of my web site," he says. "I started showing this book [of industrial images] around. Some art buyers didn't get it, but some did." He landed jobs shooting the rebuilding of a Maytag appliance factory and a documentary project for a pharmaceutical company.

Mallon had also discovered Weeks Marine and an ongoing recycling project the company was doing—dumping decommissioned New York City subway cars into the Atlantic Ocean to create artificial reefs. He began photographing that as a personal project and cementing his relationship with the company.

Then in January 2009 U.S. Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320 passenger jet, successfully ditched in the Hudson River with no loss of life among the 155 occupants—the famous "miracle on the Hudson." Weeks was contracted to salvage the airplane, and they hired Mallon to document the job.

Mallon began exhibiting Flight 1549 photos and subway car reef photos in art shows and galleries, and he's now represented by Front Room Gallery in New York. He offers his prints in three sizes in editions of five at each size. Prices range from US$1200 for a 20 x 30-inch (50 x 76cm) print to US$3600 for a 40 x 60-inch (100 x 152cm).

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Hudson Recovery: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III + EF 17-40mm f/4L at 26mm, ISO 3200, 1/60, f/4. Click to enlarge (Photo by Stephen Mallon) Subway Reef: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III + EF 17-40mm f/4L at 29mm, ISO 250, 1/250, f/13. Click to enlarge (Photo by Stephen Mallon)

For Mallon, fine art gallery sales give him a new and welcome audience, and a third, diversified income stream to go along with stock and editorial work. "There's been a number of months where my print sales have been higher than my royalties, which has been a nice shift in my life," he says. "Between assignments, royalties, and print sales, we're staying afloat. Not retiring yet by a long shot, but there's enough to stay ahead."

Industry and motion

Mallon's immediate plans for the future include more time-lapse videos, and he's making plans for the sophisticated productions that his industrial subjects will require.

"I'm thinking about how to mount cameras and keep them waterproof," he says. "I know about portable battery systems but haven't tested any of them yet. I'm definitely going to. I'm also going to look at solar options, so [cameras] could potentially be powered on location for longer periods of time.

"At some point, we're going to be setting up cameras that are motion-controlled. I'm going to have to get more live sound going—audio interviews and just the mechanical noise of some of these locations. The textural sound of some of these places is amazing."

And as he says, video is on the horizon. "I'm sure I'm going to need to shoot a little of my own full motion with sound, edited, and shot as a final piece, before I get commissioned to do it. So I need a project that I actually want to spend the time on. Whenever I've done a test in the past, if I don't care about what I'm testing, it never gets finished. So I'm going to have to find a video that I actually want to make."

All of it will be in service of cementing his niche doing the industrial imagery he loves. "I'm finding fans of the work," he says. "They say, ‘I know what you do. I love your work. We're just waiting for the right project'. That's okay. I just make sure to stay in touch with those people.

"I'm looking to be able to do whatever form is appropriate. Still only. Still and video. Video only. For the fine art market I'm still going to be shooting stills. For editorial, yeah, whoever calls. I think all of them are going to want to have some [motion] web content if possible. For commercial, we'll see what the budget is. If I'm getting paid to direct, we'll start playing it out that way."

Energy: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III + EF 17-40mm f/4L at 17mm, ISO 100, 1/50, f/11. Click to enlarge (Photo by Stephen Mallon)

More of Stephen Mallon's industrial photographs are on his website and blog.
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