Blue Earth
Glazer's Camera

Peter B. Kaplan: Top of the World

Taken by his assistant Susan Cummings, this image shows Peter B. Kaplan hooked to the outside railing of the Golden Gate Bridge's north tower in 1987. Taken by his assistant Susan Cummings, this image shows Peter B. Kaplan hooked to the outside railing of the Golden Gate Bridge's north tower in 1987.
© Susan B. Cummings

Lofty recollections from the inventor of "height photography."

Situated 746 feet above the waters of San Francisco Bay on May 24, 1987, photographer Peter B. Kaplan was fulfilling his lifelong dream of capturing majestic images from atop one of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge.

At the same time, however, he thought he was about to get a bird's-eye view of one of the world's greatest catastrophes.

The event was the 50th anniversary celebration of the 1.7-mile-long icon. Kaplan, who had practically invented an entire genre of photography shooting images from tall structures, which he termed "height photography" recently had been named the official photographer of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Event organizers had predicted that large crowds would take part in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stroll across the closed roadway. However, instead of the expected few tens of thousands of bridge-walkers, in excess of 800,000 people showed up, Kaplan says.

At dawn, the eager crowds quickly overwhelmed the barricades and surged toward the middle from both directions. Soon the mass of humanity met in the center of the span and found that they could go no further. For a few hours, Kaplan took some jaw-dropping images of the roadway below, packed cheek to jowl with revelers. Dozens of injuries were reported. Some people fainted.

All of this may have looked like a minor embarrassment for the event planners but, up on the towers, an ironworker who was assigned to escort Kaplan a person well versed in the behaviors of bridges under stress noticed some troubling signs.

"We started hearing the suspender cables start to make pinging sounds under the stress," Kaplan remembers. "The ironworker called the head engineer and told him which of the cables were pinging."

The engineer then gave a stern warning to the head of the police: "I want the crowd off that bridge."

When Kaplan told him that the crowd had grown too large to move, the engineer's tone got more forceful. "I want all those people cleared off," he barked, "or I will not be responsible for what happens."

Kaplan himself was perfectly safe where he stood. After hundreds of climbs on tall bridges, he was famous for his meticulously planned ascents and his healthy respect for potential dangers. But on that day in 1987, he had reason to be worried: Five hundred feet below, in the middle of the bridge, his pregnant wife, Sharon, was among the multitudes, trying to get ground-level images.

Luckily, after approximately eight uncomfortable hours, the police did manage to clear the bridge, which rebounded from the strain with no ill effects. Later on, however, images from a helicopter showed that, while the crowd was on the roadway, the deck's normal arc had flattened out in the center of the span.

"That was the heaviest load the bridge had ever experienced," Kaplan says. "We were pretty lucky nothing happened."

Keys to the city

Most of Kaplan's career, though, has had far more to do with preparation and perseverance than mere luck. From coast to coast, Kaplan has photographed views from the tops of some of America's mightiest bridges: the Golden Gate, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, Lion's Gate, George Washington, Vincent Thomas and Verrazano-Narrows, to name just a small sampling.

He does not limit himself to bridges, either; name a skyscraper in North America, and odds are he's photographed the view not only from the rooftop, but also from the tip of whatever TV antenna happens to be jutting above it. Some of his photos of New York's vertical wonders, such as the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Center, have achieved iconic status and have been reproduced countless times.

Having done hundreds of height-photography climbs, Kaplan is greeted with respect and admiration from the ironworkers and construction crews everywhere he goes. Property managers often welcome Kaplan like he owns the joint. One of his favorite structures, which he estimates he's climbed about 400 to 500 times, is "the old, solid-stone Brooklyn Bridge," he says. "My urban wilderness."

The bridge's 277-foot-tall towers are like Kaplan's second home, a place where he often brings friends for picnics to watch sunrises, sunsets and fireworks shows.

"We've listened to many concerts at South Street Seaport below, where we didn't have to pay for our parking and surely didn't fight any crowds," he adds.

To enable Kaplan to get to the top, New York's bridge commissioner gave him his own key to unlock the so-called "suicide barricades" that keep people from climbing on the cables. "That was one of my head trips," he adds. "To be able to say that I had the key to the Brooklyn Bridge on my key ring always made me smile, and it still does."

Safety first and last

In a business that requires its practitioners to perch on narrow ledges at nosebleed altitudes, one obviously need nerves of steel, but more importantly it helps to have a healthy respect for safety and potential dangers.

Like his ironworker brethren, Kaplan and his crew always wore safety belts that hook onto secure lifelines when they are aloft; today, however, OSHA requires them to use full-body harnesses. Kaplan often likes to use two hooks on his safety belt, just to be extra careful.

"You have to trust your equipment, because your life depends on it," he says. "When I lean back, I have nothing but air behind me, but I know I have good ropes."

Kaplan learned to secure loose items in zipper pouches and backpacks so they can be easily carried up the narrow stairways or ladders that are often found at the tips of many tall structures. "Our poles and tripods are all retrofitted with pipe clamps that hold D rings, so we can attach removable straps to the D rings," he explains.

He's meticulous about accounting for every item he brings along on a climb and for good reason. "I've fired assistants because they didn't zip up a zipper," he says. "If you drop something at that height, it'll kill whoever it hits on the ground."

In his four decades of defying gravity, Kaplan says that no one has ever come close to falling, but there has been one "close call" involving equipment. A cameraman who was documenting one of Kaplan's climbs on the Chrysler Building for the "Real People" TV show dropped his metal carabiner clip that bounced off the scaffolding and over the edge of the skyscraper.

"There we were, a thousand feet above 42nd Street and Lexington on a weekday at about a quarter to noon," Kaplan recalls. "Below were thousands of people, and my stomach was in my mouth while we watched for a crowd to gather." Thankfully, however, no one was hit because the carabiner landed on a set back, he says.

"Unlike when you're down on the street, you have to really pay attention to your surroundings up there," Kaplan says of his lofty perches. "You don't just lean on something, you shake it first to make sure it won't give way and you've got just one chance to get it right."

Born to climb

"My love for bridges began before I was born," says Kaplan, who was raised in Great Neck, Long Island. "Many years after [I began] climbing bridges, I was visiting my parents and my father said to me, "You always loved bridges your mother broke her water with you as we drove across the 59th Street Bridge.'"

When he began developing an interest in photography, however, his eye was captivated more by nature and wildlife than by bricks and steel. After serving in the U.S. Army, Kaplan studied the basics of photography at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, but soon quit college and became an assistant to more than 100 commercial and editorial photographers back in New York.

For nearly a decade as an assistant, Kaplan honed his skills with many different styles of photography. In addition to doing wedding and portrait work, he also assisted a Vogue photographer for a year and a half. (His range can be seen on his website, peterbkaplanstock.com, which has galleries of nature, wildlife, travel, abstracts and nudes among all of his urban landscapes).

He started out as a wildlife photographer in the early 1970s, completing essays for Time/Life Books, along with Geo and Audubon magazines. But after realizing that the pay for nature work was not enough to cover his expenses, Kaplan developed an interest in architectural photography, sparked, in part, by the construction of the World Trade Center in the early 1970s.

"When I drove across a bridge, I would look up at the towers and imagine what the view must be like from on top," he says. "Now that I think about it, the first bridge I ever climbed was the 59th Street Bridge too bad I can't tell that to my Dad."

While crews were restoring the now-century-old bridge, Kaplan was allowed access to document the work. "I was terrified as I first climbed out onto the open steel girders," he remembers, "but as I watched the bridge painters climb around like ballerinas, I eased into shooting with my Nikons."

Gradually, he was able to "open the doors" to other New York City bridges and convinced the bridge commissioner to issue him permits for the four East River bridges for four months at a time. "We had to call many different police departments," he says. "The officers got to know us and would say, "You're going to have a great sunset have a great climb!'"

Patience rewarded

It wasn't always so easy for Kaplan to waltz into any bridge or skyscraper he wanted. His broad acceptance at many tall structures was built on many years of patient negotiations with nervous corporate CEOs and a stubborn refusal to give up.

"People always ask me, "How do you get permission to do this stuff?' Well, you have to ask and you have to be persistent," he says. "A friend told me he couldn't get access to the Chrysler Building's scaffold. He said he tried for a few weeks and got nowhere. I told him, "You didn't try hard enough. I kept at it for five months.' It took me another four months to get permission to shoot the World Trade Center antenna construction."

Such reluctance on the part of building owners is understandable. Although Kaplan has a proven record of professional behavior, there are a lot of foolhardy people out there causing major liability headaches. Years ago, when Kaplan wanted to climb San Francisco's Transamerica Pyramid, the assistant manager balked, saying, "We just had this nut who calls himself Spider Man illegally climb the outside of this building in his white tuxedo two weeks ago, and he almost killed himself. We don't need another daredevil."

Over the years, Kaplan says, "I've learned that it is easier to say no rather than say yes. But I also learned from an old cowboy, while working on a ranch in Oregon, who said, "If you don't have a mind to change, then you don't have a mind at all.'"

Besides persistence, it also takes talking to the right people. For five to ten years, Kaplan had tried to get permission to climb the cupola of New York's Met Life building, but two different CEOs kept saying no. Then, when talking with an ironworker friend about his frustrations, the ironworker said, "Met Life? Oh, well, why don't you talk to Jerry? He's the super," Kaplan recalls. "You just have to find the right key."

Still, if Kaplan could pass on one piece of advice to anyone thinking of following in his footsteps, it would be this: "Get a lot of insurance. I have a $5 million policy. Most other photographers carry about $250,000, so $5 million lets people know I'm pretty serious about what I do."

Gearing up

Kaplan may be a sui generis photographer, but he's almost never alone on his shoots; he needs one or two assistants to carry the poles, extensions, tripods, bean bags, climbing vests, safety belts, climbing hooks, helmets, climbing boots and 800mm lenses, plus the occasional gyro to dampen vibrations.

Unlike when you're down on the street, you have to really pay attention to your surroundings — and you've got just one chance to get it right

For some major projects, he brings along a small army. From 1982 to 1986, he covered the renovation of the Statue of Liberty for its centennial celebration. Although he was "the only professional photographer allowed on the island" during the Fourth of July weekend celebration in 1986, Kaplan had 24 shooters positioned all around New York Harbor.

Kaplan was an early convert to digital equipment, switching from film about 15 years ago. A loyal Nikon user, he prefers the D200 and D3, and says that he likes how every new Nikon camera body will accept all of his older lenses.

While the newer digital models make the backpacks a bit lighter as no film canisters are needed (his SanDisk Extreme 16 GB also lightens the load), Kaplan says he misses the ruggedness of analog equipment. "It used to be you could buy a film camera and use it for 30 years," he says. "Now, with digital, anything you buy is updated within a couple of years."

To help him line up photos from seemingly impossible vantage points, Kaplan learned the "previsualization" technique while studying under Ansel Adams in the 1970s.

"I modified his technique by placing my mind 20 feet out on a pole," Kaplan says. He also uses 16mm lenses, which "allow you to see down and out at the same time."

View from the top

Rergardless of the type of camera he uses, Kaplan's chosen subject matter requires an unsual shooting technique. A good height image, he says, requires a vantage point that looks down on the subject, often from a point in space where no photographer can stand. So Kaplan often employs a series of extension poles, ranging from six to 42 feet long.

"When you've got a camera 17, 23 or 42 feet out in front of you, you're basically shooting blind," he says. "The camera's pointing down, 180 degrees away from where you're looking, so it's very difficult to judge what's in the viewfinder."

Today, Kaplan is living in Hockessin, Del., and focusing on several book projects. He recently completed a book for Turner Construction about the new Citigroup Building in Long Island City, N.Y., and is starting to work on Turner's new $1.2 billion building at Ground Zero.

Meanwhile, he is working on two book projects that have a decidedly softer theme: one on a series of one-of-a-kind nudes that he started nearly three decades ago on top of famous New York and Philadelphia landmarks, and another one called "Nudes in Nature."

At age 68, Kaplan may not be scrambling up quite as many ladders as he used to, but he's still doing what he does best. As recently as December 2007, Kaplan captured some images from the tops of several skyscrapers in the Los Angeles area, including the US Bank Tower and Caltrans building, as well as the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro, Calif.
After decades of lugging heavy equipment up big hunks of steel and concrete, and then manipulating heavy cameras at the ends of long poles, Kaplan's arm muscles are far more developed than those of the average sexagenarian. He practically dares anyone else to follow in his footsteps.

"One time I was giving a lecture in Philadelphia to ASMP and I was very open about what I do and how to build the poles and all the preparation that's required," Kaplan says. "The [ASMP] president, then asked me, "Aren't you scared about people competing with you and copying what you do?' And I said, "Let ‘em do it. The first time they drop their pole, that's when I can raise my rates!'"

Even his family can't seem to keep him on solid ground. "My mother once said to me, "Aren't you getting too old for this?' And I told her, "Mom, it's more dangerous on the ground than it is up there.' Several years later I fell on a sidewalk and broke my hip. She never questioned my climbing again."

Randy Woods
Story Author: Randy Woods

Randy Woods, editor of PhotoMedia, has been in the magazine publishing world for more than 20 years, covering such varied topics as photography, insurance, business startups, environmental issues and newspaper publishing. He is also associate editor for iSixSigma magazine and writes a job—search blog for The Seattle Times called “Hire Ground.”

E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it