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New York's Fearless Bridge-Climber Recalls Highs and Lows

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Welcome to In Focus, a feature where writer Hannah Frishberg profiles some of the great street photographers of New York City's past and present.

Dave "The Bridge Man" Frieder has a monopoly on a hyper-specific market—legal photography from the tops of New York City's bridges. Since 1993, he's been as prolific as the Port Authority will allow, climbing bridges whenever he's given the all-clear. Frieder has scaled a total of 18 to date; that figure doesn't include other sky-scraping structures like the Coney Island Parachute Jump and New Jersey's Armstrong FM Tower. He's a connoisseur of not on the spans' heights, but also their histories, making it a point to meet in person the descendants of the architects of New York City's major bridges.

Still in the works is a black-and-white coffee table book of his photography, now 22 years in the making, which Frieder hopes to complete later this year. While he is far from the first (and, despite crackdowns, likely the last) to scale NYC's infrastructure, his body of work is made up of virtually the only authorized shots not taken by workers for promotional purposes. The images Frieder captures further depart from those of the urban explorers who clamber up without permission under the cover of night because he is allowed to go up during the day, which results in a range of glorious shots from infrastructure close-ups to wide urban landscapes.

How'd you get into bridges?
I studied the engineering behind the George Washington Bridge and loved it. In 1994, I wrote a synopsis of what I wanted to do and sent it to the Bridge and Tunnel Authority. They said, "It shouldn't be a problem, so long as you have insurance and you get a contractor to go up with you." So for eight or nine years, I had access to almost every bridge in the city. The GWB was also the first one I climbed.

What was it like finally getting permission to climb your first bridge?
It really wasn't that difficult. I never had a fear of heights. For some reason, heights just never bothered me.

What does your mantra—"feel the steel"—mean?
It's just something I came up with. I think it's the best way to describe how the better you know your subject, the better you can capture it. My real passion is photography, but it eventually led to the bridges. What I have in my photos is one-of-a-kind and can't be duplicated.

Have you tried shooting bridges in other cities?
All the other bridge authorities I called said no. Or they said yes, but that I couldn't shoot from the cables, and I just said forget it. Maybe after my book comes out, they'll change their minds. [Frieder is still looking for a publisher.]

Do you prefer climbing the main cable, even if there's an option of stairs or an elevator?
Yes. I think it's cool. You get a great view as you're walking up. A great feeling, being so high. I love it.

What kind of camera do you use? What do you prefer about black-and-white?
Most of my photographs are taken with a Hasselblad. Black-and-white gives you 1,000 shades of gray between pure black and pure white. When you want color, you want it full on. In black-and-white, you can have so many shades of gray. It's much more artistic.

For the Coney Island Parachute Jump, I used color. I also tried black-and-white, but it just didn't do it. Same with the Hell Gate. They'd just finished painting it that maroon red. That needed color.

You keep a list of problems you've encountered while photographing. What tops the list?
Being attacked by peregrine falcons—many times. The police harassing me. The weather being too hot. Too cold. Too many boats in the field of view. Fog. Too windy. Those are just some.

Do you consider your work to be "street photography"?
I don't think so. I'm 300 feet up in the air. That's not street level. Most people I know don't like heights. I love heights. But I never take chances. I take safety very seriously.

What do you feel your portfolio says about the city?
It shows a dynamic city. It shows an amazing city. It shows the way the city is evolving, more or less. Also, that New York is all islands, except The Bronx, and the best way to bring all the boroughs together is a suspension bridge. The rivers have the right of way, so the only way to connect them is to make the bridges high enough.

In 2011, you told the New York Times you're done climbing bridges. Is that true?
I did gymnastics for 20 years, and that was unknowingly training me to climb the bridges. But now I have a bad back.

Plus 9/11 [and the heightened security that resulted from the attacks]—that's why I'm not climbing bridges anymore. I had a lot of problems, a lot of disappointments, even before 9/11, but I never gave up. 9/11 was really traumatic for me. It still makes me sad. I had a deep connection with those buildings. I have dozens and dozens of shots of the towers from the tops of bridges.

The last bridge I climbed wasn't even in the city—it was the Mid-Hudson Bridge in Poughkeepsie, and I was in so much pain. I said, "I can't do this anymore." I've contacted people from the New York State Thruway Authority, to see if I can climb the old Tappan Zee Bridge before that's taken down. If they say yes, I'll get my back in order.

· The Bridge Man [official]
· In Focus archive [Curbed]