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In the Classroom > Picturing America Lessons

The Brooklyn Bridge: This is not a Bridge!

Lesson created by: Linda E. Neville

Grade Level: 7


13-A Walker Evans, Brooklyn Bridge, New York, 1929

Brooklyn Bridge

Walker Evans(American, 1903–1975), Brooklyn Bridge, New York, 1929, printed ca.1970, Gelatin silver print: 17.2 x 12.2 cm. (6 3/4 x 4 13/16 in.): The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Arnold H. Crane, 1972. (1972.742.3) © The Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

14-B Joseph Stella, Brooklyn Bridge, c. 1919–1920

Brooklyn Bridge

Joseph Stella (1877–1946), Brooklyn Bridge, c. 1919–1920. Oil on canvas, 84 x 76 in.(213.36 x 193.04 cm.). Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn. Gift of Collection Société Anonyme.

Other Resources Needed for this Lesson

Walt Whitman, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"


  • Students will compare and contrast representations of the Brooklyn Bridge from a photograph by Walker Evans, a painting by Joseph Stella, and a poem by Walt Whitman.
  • Students will identify and analyze the sensory features of each medium.
  • Students will identify the literary and artistic elements that create mood, point of view, and symbolism.
  • Students will understand that artists can influence, reflect or change cultural understandings by the way in which they choose to interpret the world around them.

Focusing Statement

Today we are going to look at how an artist shares his insights into the relevance of an iconic object. Certain objects take on special meanings that transcend their functionality. The artist's eye and skill raises these representations of objects to a different level. We will be considering the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, today, by looking at a photograph, a painting, and a poem. We will ask ourselves: "When is a bridge not a bridge?"

Background Information

The Brooklyn Bridge, built by a father and son team of first John A. Roebling and his son, Washington Roebling, after the death of his father, opened in 1883. In this year, the bridge was a wonder! It was the largest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere. At the time of the photograph, by Walker Evans in 1929, other bridges had been built and the Brooklyn Bridge had become just a way of getting to and from Manhattan. Evans had been exposed to the "strict geometries" of modern art and his "dead-on" view of the bridge with its gothic-like towers urged people to see the artistry of design in this remarkable structure. His photograph made the Brooklyn Bridge an icon. People sensed the importance of this bridge as a symbol of modern technology. In a different way, the painting by Joseph Stella, a Futuristic artist, gives us his impression of the bridge at night in 1919. He includes the reflection of lights and uses movement to create the sounds of trains, and a dark palette to allow us to hear the moaning of tug-boats below. Walt Whitman celebrates the sights and sounds of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the East River in his poem published in 1856. He also makes a case for the connectivity of everything created: man, bird, tug-boat, river, skyscrapers, etc. and brings a sense of joy and awe of the creativity symbolized in this arena.

Examining Expressive Content

  • What does the idea of "a bridge" bring to mind? What do you see if you close your eyes?
  • Why do we need bridges?
  • Do you see a bridge when you look at these two images? What tells you this is a bridge?
  • Why did Evans take this photograph from this angle? Most depictions of bridges are seen as a horizontal expanse over water.
  • The photograph is in black and white with no background. What would be in the background?
  • Stella's painting is an abstract. Can you find elements depicted in the photograph that are also in the painting? How are they the same? How are they different?
  • What kind of mood do you feel when looking at the photograph? At the painting?
  • What do you hear when looking at either the photograph or the painting?
  • What don't you see in the photograph that you would expect to see? Clue: What would be on the bridge? How does this affect you, the viewer?
  • What would be below and above the bridge in either the photograph or the painting?
  • When reading "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" we can picture the scene below and above this bridge that crosses the East River. What does Whitman describe? Can you hear the sounds of these objects and the smells of the things near the river?

Teaching Plan

  1. Students will do internet research on the artists' lives and the time before, during, and after World War I as a backdrop to the transition into the modern times.
  2. Students will compare and contrast the life of Americans growing up in a large city such as New York as opposed to those living in a small town by looking at population figures, skyline views, size of rivers, quality of life, and transportation needs.

Putting It All Together

After revisiting the images and the poem, and having a class discussion on what they now see more clearly, I would like to extend the lesson to see if students have attained mastery of skills of observation and interpretation. I would like to have them look for something in their community that might be seen as being more than just functional. A western Massachusetts example of this would be the Hoosac Tunnel. Students could take photographs, paint, or write a poem about its significance as being more than just a functional passage for trains.



Common Core Standards

English Language Arts Standards » Reading: Literature » Grade 7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.7 Compare and contrast a written story, drama, or poem to its audio, filmed, staged, or multimedia version, analyzing the effects of techniques unique to each medium (e.g., lighting, sound, color, or camera focus and angles in a film).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.9 Compare and contrast a fictional portrayal of a time, place, or character and a historical account of the same period as a means of understanding how authors of fiction use or alter history.

Massachusetts Arts Curriculum Framework

The PreK–12 Learning Standards for the Visual Arts:
5. Critical Response. Students will describe and analyze their own work and the work of others using appropriate visual arts vocabulary. When appropriate, students will connect their analysis to interpretation and evaluation.

Connections Strand
10. Interdisciplinary Connections. Students will apply their knowledge of the arts to the study of English language arts, foreign languages, health, history and social science, mathematics, and science and technology/engineering.

Learning Standards
By the end of grade 8 students will:
5.6 Demonstrate the ability to describe the kinds of imagery used to represent subject matter and ideas, for example, literal representation, simplification, abstraction, or symbolism.

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