I’ve been asked by Phil Lavery to talk about my “The Bridges” project at an exhibition private view this Sunday at the Patriothall Gallery in Edinburgh. Having stupidly said yes, I’ve been going through something not unlike an exorcism, in an attempt to get what was in my head during the making of the work, into the form of a talk.
If you’ve seen Black Books – think Bernard doing his taxes.
This blog post, isn’t the talk itself, but it’s going to form it’s bones. I figured it might interest some folk to read it.
What a gorgeous great device you are. So delicate from this distance, so massive and strong close-up. Elegance and grace; perfect form. A quality bridge; granite piers, the best ship-plate steel, and a never-ending paint job.
Iain Banks, The Bridge
I’m very flattered to have been asked to speak at Phil Lavery’s open afternoon, and alongside some illustrious names too. The impostor syndrome is strong in me right now.
It’s a difficult thing to look at your own work critically and put into words, your reasoning behind a piece or a series. All art can be reduced to a series of choices, especially photography, but in my case those choices often aren’t verbalised until well into the process. Much of it is a rationalisation of the work, but when the work is being made, it’s a much more visceral and wordless process.
I remember one old mentor of mine describing how he would often go to a place and just sit there and be in the space until he felt he could respond to it. Wordlessly, but reasoned.
This is the process I went through, although the sitting in place part of it was much longer than you might expect. See, I moved to live under the bridges in 2000. Myself and my partner moved in together right between the Forth Rail and Road bridges, with nothing but a garden between us and the Forth. In terms of time spans, the work itself almost spans our relationship. We moved away from the bridges to have our child (now a teenager), and for years the idea simply remained in the back of my mind as something I needed to complete; then, in 2008 we moved back to Fife, and close enough to feel the pull of the bridges again.
When I lived there, I felt that the bridges were everywhere, reflected in the windows, the mirrors, even the TV. I even remember watching a TV program about the bridges, while their reflection got in the way of the picture. Then I started reading a book called The Bridge by the late, great Iain Banks; who had been a hero of mine way before we moved there. It just so happened that Iain Banks was also a North Queensferry resident; evidently, he’d also been sent into a creative fugue by being one of the trolls, like me, who lived under The Bridge.
I devoured that book. If you’re unaware then a brief synopsis is that a person in a coma transforms the Rail Bridge into a fantastical structure in their coma dream. An almost unending megastructure of steel and rivets in which a varied and disturbing range of characters live. It’s an uneasy description of a coma dream and it turns out that reading it, in proximity to the real thing can sometimes do things to your mind. Reading the book, looking out of my window to see the Bridge itself, sometimes coming out of the all too frequent Forth fog, I read passages like this …
“This is not a long bridge, but it goes on forever. I am not far from the bank, but I will never get there. I walk but I never move. Fast or slow, running, turning, doubling back, jumping, throwing myself or stopping; nothing makes any difference.” ―
Iain Banks, The Bridge
And so a seed took root. When you live under the bridges, there’s an uneasy awe. It’s something that pervades your life even if after a time you might be unaware of it’s influence. The bridges eavesdrop on you, they cast a shadow on you but they also put a welcome arm around you. They are part of your life; they enter your home in unexpected ways. Via sight, sound and sometimes even touch.
So really it shouldn’t be a surprise that it affects creative people in strange ways. I’ve met many artists who’ve been moved to make work about these structures. Many of whom actually read The Bridge and felt the need to respond. In particular I recommend looking up Ben Chatwin, a musician who moved to South Queensferry, read The Bridge and quickly felt compelled to create a soundscape that brought the exact same sense of drift and weirdness that the book did within seconds of listening to it.
I think with Banks’ novel in particular, it’s almost a call to arms for local artists, who see something in the work that they recognise. Something that isn’t brought out in the more tourist focussed imagery you typically see of the bridges.
There are expectations, I feel, when you say that you are working on or made a series of images of the rail bridge. This was brought home to me one day when I was setting up my gear, to make some images of the bridge, very early in the process. More than once, one of the more venerable North Queensferry residents came out to tell me I should go away and come back later when the sun was setting so that the intense red of the rail bridge would be enhanced.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I was working in black and white, and that I would hardly ever show the whole bridge in any of my photos! I used black and white for this project, by the way, because I strongly believe that removing colour can focus the attention on structure, texture, light and shade. And this subject in particular has oodles of the first 2 elements. Maybe not so much of the 3rd though. It’s the Firth of Forth after all.
I played compositional games with the rail bridge to begin with. A kind of photographic hide and seek. It was initially just a way to revive my photographic brain, but eventually I started to see something in it; and that’s when I started to rationalise my impulse to work around the subject. I started to see a more visual way, to show people how you see the bridge when you live under them. If you’ve ever been to either North or South Queensferry you’ll understand.
Hell, in Edinburgh you’ll get the idea too. When you walk past a vennel or a close and see the castle or the Wallace Monument framed by the towering flats on either side. It literally gives you a different, often surprising perspective on a place. This was the root of the project.
I realised I could show something of the brutal beauty of the bridges, wordlessly. There’s no competing with Iain Banks’ words anyway, I wanted to respond to his call in my own (ain?) language. I could show how they live in your mind when you live under their wings. So compositional games became abstract details.
Then I started to try and play with the sheer enormity of the structures. I wanted to show how they seem to go on forever,
Not just in scale, but in time spans too. I wanted to try and echo the tonality of the early images of the the rail bridge to make it easier for some of the images to hook into that feeling of nostalgia, and to communicate non-verbally about how long these structures have been here. I settled on a kind of split-toned effect which is actually not far off what I used to do pre-digital technology in an actual darkroom. I also feel it gives a velvety texture to shadows in particular. It’s not something I would use in many projects, but I feel it’s very effective for this one.
“Future became Present, Present became Past. A truth so banal, so obvious and accepted that he had somehow managed to ignore it before.” –
Iain Banks,The Bridge
I also wanted to show how the bridges enter the lives of the Queensferry folk in subtle ways. So I started to work with visual metaphors for that too. Where I could, I also tried to bleach out the background. Not so much with photoshop, just using exposure; to try and focus on the key elements within the images and remove distraction. So actually my favourite days to head out with my camera were the dull grey days, without harsh light and without distracting sunny skies.
I feel that the images that follow that pattern are much more successful than the ones that don’t. If I wasn’t desperate to move on to new shiny projects I might go out and reshoot those images in particular. I feel they work within the context, but they lack consistency with the key images in the series.
I find very often that it doesn’t take long for me to look back on my work and start to dislike it and want to bury it under new projects, but while there are elements of that still in this project, like the previous couple of images. It’s definitely one that I still love. It occupied my brain for well over a decade until completion; it was the first project I encountered that made me feel *driven* to complete it; and it *still* partially occupies my life today.
Importantly for me, I think it says at least something about Banks’ fantasy bridge too, and of what inspired him to produce what is, in my opinion, his greatest work. I like to think that Iain Banks would have appreciated this project as a conversation with his own, and with the other local artists who were caught under the spell of the bridges, even if it doesn’t reach the same heights.
I think my greatest regret is that in all the opportunities I had to say to the man: “Hey you should know you inspired me to work on this really long project which I’ve been working on for a massive chunk of my life now. Aren’t the bridges amazing things?”, what I actually did was smile and say hello, as we both grabbed our Sunday paper from the newsagent by the railway station.
I’m glad that it’s done now. I often get asked about that re: the new bridge, the Queensferry Crossing. Honestly? I understand why it’s needed. So I don’t feel it was a waste like some folk do, but I’ve always felt it to be an interloper.
The Forth Rail and Road Bridges feel like old friends to me. They’ve been part of my life since long long before I moved away from the Highlands, over 20 years ago. Crossing them south was a moment of excitement, knowing you were close to reaching Auld Reekie. Going the other way, was a moment of relief on the way home again.
I don’t feel like people live with the new bridge in the way that they do with the old ones. It’s that bit further away for a start, and it sucks life away from the Queensferries in my opinion. It makes life easier for drivers, yes, but it has a slightly vampiric relationship with those folk who live under the bridges. It’s more difficult to get to them, it takes people away from them and that affects the local businesses. Admittedly, the Forth Road Bridge did that too when it first opened.
So that highly mythologised relationship that I have with the rail and road bridges, is just not there with the Crossing. Adding a similar chapter to this project based on it, would be a lie. I’ve even been offered exhibitions on the condition that I work on a new chapter of the project, but I just feel like I can’t; and actually I’m keen to move on. Which, finally I am. I start a long term project in November, and for the first time in years, I’m raring to get my teeth stuck into something new. Something that hopefully, won’t take over a decade to complete.
And with that, ladies and gents, I am actually done. I hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for letting me waffle on.