By Kate Watson
In 2015, photographer Dale Wilson took on “the gig of a lifetime” documenting the process of the suspended spans deck replacement of the Macdonald Bridge. The project, known as the Big Lift, represents an awesome engineering feat that has generated interest around the world.
To commemorate the project, Halifax Harbour Bridges has published a limited-edition book containing 91 of Wilson’s photos. The book will be launched during this Sunday’s Bridge Walk.
Hello Dartmouth caught up with Wilson to find out more about his experiences chronicling this once-in-a-lifetime event.
HD: What a gorgeous book!
DW: Thank you. I have to deflect praise to the designer, Rick Smith, of Halifax. He did an incredible job of transcending an industrial project into a contemporary snapshot of time and place. Credit also has to be given the publisher, Halifax Harbour Bridges, for providing Rick the latitude to have fun with the design. At the end of the day, you are correct: It is a gorgeous book, and that is due to Rick’s skill as a designer and being provided the opportunity to showcase his talents.
HD: Tell us a bit about your career as a photographer
DW: My career is not unlike many other photographers. I started shooting black and white film for the Shelburne Coast Guard newspaper in 1986. The editor, Len Pace, would give me a roll of Ilford HP5 and an assignment; in exchange he would teach me how to develop and print the film in the newspapers’ darkroom. This lead to learning how to shoot stock photography, and I would eventually be represented by Masterfile and Getty images, the two most successful agents of the day. Masterfile, in particular, had the capacity to place my material with clients I would never otherwise have had access: National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, New York Times, Washington post, etc. This one agency is also responsible for licensing my work on many corporate advertising campaigns, postage stamps, and book covers (more than 150 titles), and so on. I have been very fortunate throughout my career to have wonderful representation and support, least of all from my family.
HD: How did it compare to other cool projects you’ve worked on?
DW: It really isn’t fair to compare one project to another. For example, I am incredibly blessed to have worked with Parks Canada for more than 20 years. They have provided assignments that have me working with provincial and national historic treasures – projects that leave me in awe of just how privileged I am. The Big Lift was however, without question, a career highlight. To have the opportunity to work alongside the engineers, ironworkers, administrators, traffic control … the entire team that worked on this incredible feat is, well, still a bit overwhelming. One has to watch an Ironworker trying to put a nut on a bolt in -30 degree temperature—when it is so cold the big industrial generators have shut down—to truly appreciate the dedication and commitment of these tough-as-nails professionals. If I were ever to do a book on my career, The Big Lift would be a strong, strong candidate for page one.
HD: What sort of hours did you put in?
DW: This is a tough question to answer. This was most definitely not a nine-to-five job. I was most often called to document specific highlights during the process, and the amount of time could vary from an hour to a marathon. Without question, the longest weekend was the replacement of Section D1 – the lowering and raising of the first deck segment. I was onsite Friday at 6:30 pm to get pictures of the Dartmouth tolls just before the bridge was closed (page 24) and left about 48 hours later when the replacement section was lifted and raised into place. That weekend involved a lot of coffee and sugar donut overload, coupled with cat naps in the car.
HD: Was the assignment fun? Difficult? Scary? All of the above?
DW: Without reservation, this was one of the most exciting and fun jobs I have had the privilege to work on. Beyond the excitement of being a part of an epic project, the most fun for me was the crew. The more I observed, the more I learned; the more I learned, the better I was able to understand the challenges; the more I understood the challenges, the more appreciative and respectful I was of the tasks these men and women were facing. I do hope I was able to showcase not only the visually appealing components of this project, but also the character and characters that are bringing this engineering feat to a successful completion. Technically it was a difficult assignment, but like any professional (I should think) we should be able to problem solve on the fly. This was an industrial job: it would be dirty and dusty, it would be dingy and dark, and it would be extreme cold and heat. To make it even more interesting toss in some rain coming sideways, or ice, or snow and anyone of these days could be just another at the office. The trick was to rely on experience and be sufficiently prepared to mitigate any perceived challenge before it became one. At no time was there a scary moment. I cannot emphasize how strongly safety was the first objective of every shift. I was required to take site specific safety orientation by both Halifax Harbour Bridges and the primary contractor American Bridge. Like any other worker on an industrial site I am to ensure my PPE (personal protection equipment) is appropriate, and any necessary workplace safety certifications are valid. When safety is the first priority, at no time should a worker feel “scary.” I didn’t. Mind you, it did take a little getting used to standing on a deck edge and looking down at the harbour some 50 metres below.
HD: Tell us about shooting the cover photo.
DW: At the time I wasn’t thinking of how iconic this picture would become. I am simply on an assignment and my task is to get some shots of the “final hole in the bridge” shots of The Big Lift project. I signed onsite around 2:15 am and made my way to the Halifax side. It was really dark and damp, with fog as thick as pea soup. I had just swapped filters on the front of a lens (I continuously swap clear-glass filters on foggy days to keep moisture landing on the lens and ultimately showing on the final picture) and decided to find an area that had more light (page 36). I made my way back from under the Barrington street ramp, to the bridge deck. The crew had just changed shifts and there were very few of us on either side of the “hole.” I had shot this scene several times earlier with different segments in the project so it was not unique to me. However, as I watched the engineer come down, look over the edge, and then disappear back into the fog – I shot the whole sequence knowing that solitary man on the deck was making an interesting image. At the time I wasn’t thinking anything other than thanking the engineer in my mind for walking perfectly back into the “white hole of fog.” I knew he was making the picture more interesting, but, again, it was just another sequence in that day’s events.
HD: What makes it such an iconic picture?
DW: I really don’t know. I suppose we can each look at it and draw our own conclusions, by its very nature it is both a peaceful yet complex scene.
I didn’t realize the significance of the shot until after it went viral, viewed globally worldwide by more than 1 million people. As I look at the image today I see the engineer walk to the edge, look over at the last “hole” and exit, presumably contented about a job well done. It is the simplicity that allows this image to resonate, but it is the knowledge that this image of the final segment lift encapsulates many years of work that permits each of us to come to our own conclusion.
HD: How many photos did you take?
DW: Oh my goodness, I have no idea. Thousands, but not as many as one might think given the magnitude and scale of the project.
HD: Do you have a favourite?
DW: No, most photographers will never say they have a favourite. The reason is because we are invested in the images. For me it is typically not the picture, but the story behind the picture. For example, the great fun I had with Cowboy Joe (page 26) as he tried to convince me that was his legal name. He strung me along early on a quiet Sunday morning for about 10 minutes. It was not his first rodeo, he showed me his driver’s license and I retreated quite red-faced. Murray Marten, (page 76) was the first Ironworker that introduced himself to me and made me feel welcome amongst the crew. I am most grateful to him for our often colourful chats during a slow moment. Or perhaps being one of only two people on the entire span watching the fireworks (page 94) with the Safety Officer, Derek Nickerson (page 48). But then again, the picture on page …
HD: Where can people get the book? How much does it cost?
DW: The book will be launched during Bridge Walk 2017; August 6 from 2-4:00pm, which is this coming Sunday. The cost of the book on this one day only is $20 and that includes taxes. After Bridge Walk, the book will be sold through the MacPac office by the MacKay bridge with a listed retail price of $29.95. It is also worth noting there will only be 1300 books, one for each metre the Macdonald Bridge is long. This is not a lot of books, so I would encourage folks to come to our table near the toll booths during Bridge Walk where I will be numbering (remember, only 1300 are available) and signing. Drop by and say hello – these books will make great gifts item or a lasting momento.
HD: Anything else you’d like to add?
DW: Absolutely. I have to thank my client and the publisher of this book, HHB, and especially Alison and Allison, for the confidence they had in assigning me this “Gig of a Lifetime” and providing the flexibility to interpret this epic project without restriction or instruction. There are far too many Ironworkers with Local 752 and all the different departments to list them, but certainly Derek and Adam, and especially Lesley with American Bridge deserve a mention. But I also want to recognize the residents of Halifax and Dartmouth who, on occasion, would reach out to me and express their appreciation for my putting faces to this project. I really appreciated this outreach as it confirmed what I already knew – this was an all encompassing community project, albeit of epic proportions.