Bridges and Cameras



'Bridges and Cameras'
Geelong Art Gallery Carolyn Lewens and Neil Stanyer Watermarks (2000)

What do bridges have in common with cameras? As visitors to Watermarks: Crossings, we find themselves immersed in the variety of bridge structures found in the Geelong region. We could, of course, witness these bridges at first hand by taking a tour around the Corio region. So what might photography tell us about the bridges that real life experience could not? What do we see in an art gallery that escapes our notice out in the open air? The answer to these questions requires consideration of the elements of photography that relate to bridges.

As part of their statewide series of photographic exhibitions of water, Caroline Lewens and Neil Stanyer have recreated the world of Geelong bridges. A series of transparencies from the McIntyre Bridge span the Myer Gallery. As well as visual cues, the artists have given bridges a voice. A soundtrack surrounds us in the sighs and rumbles that are performed by bridges.

The first topic of conversation between bridge and camera is historical. Lewens and Stanyer have chosen photographic techniques that are parallel in time with the concrete bridges that channelled Geelong’s growth. The nineteenth-century process of cyanotype is used to reproduce marks visible in wax rubbings of bluestone and commemorative plaques. Traditional silver darkroom techniques render the grey tones of concrete. Modern concrete bridge and photography are fellow travellers in the march of progress.

This camaraderie extends to the documentation of defunct bridges. One service that Lewens and Stanyer offer bridges is acknowledgement of the considerable labour in their construction. This is particularly evident in the fate of bridges that have ceased to bear their load, such as the Ovoid Sewerage Aqueduct, the victim of concrete cancer.

The poignance of such defunct bridges is evoked in Kate Grenville’s comic novel The Idea of Perfection. Grenville focuses on an engineer’s dilemma—the hero is asked to destroy a work of significant craftsmanship in order to erect a more streamlined and characterless structure.

There was no great engineering in these old bridges but he had noticed how often there was exceptional workmanship. Here, for instance, a neat bit of squaring had been done on the timbers of a joint so each one slotted in snugly against the other. The long-dead men who had built this bridge had even gone to the trouble of countersinking the bolt-heads, pecking out a tidy hole to get it all as tights as a piece of cabinetwork. It was tricky, working hardwood like that, but they had through it worth doing. Kate Grenville The Idea of Perfection Sydney: Picador, 1999, p. 66

It is difficult to look at the bridges Watermarks: Crossings without an appreciation of their production.

Is the dialogue between camera and bridge only historical? To move the conversation further, we need to consider how their physical structures relate. The water that flows under bridges is seen in common idiom as marking the passage of time. This flow is contrasted by the static presence of the bridge. Change is marked by stasis. This, of course, is the business of a camera in a more literal sense. Time as light streams continuously but a camera is designed to capture a slice of time. As Roland Barthes has written, ‘That the Photograph is ‘modern’, mingled with our everyday life, does not keep it from having the enigmatic point of inactuality, a strange stasis, the stasis of an arrest.’ (Camera Lucinda (trans. R. Howard) London: Fontana, 1984 (orig. 1980), p. 91) The balance of change and stillness is shared between camera and bridge.

This happy coincidence of function opens a further train of thought. This path has been explored in detail by one of the great German travel writers of consciousness, Martin Heidegger. His 1954 essay, Building, Dwelling, Thinking, subtly unravels the relationship of bridge to landscape. Heidegger questions the obvious understanding that a river precedes the existence of a bridge. He points out that the connection of the bridge enables the banks of the river to assert their separateness. In his semi-poetic language, ‘The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream.’ He continues to paint an intimate picture of the bridge:

Resting upright in the stream’s bed, the bridge-piers bear the swing of the arches that leave the stream’s waters to run their course. The waters may wander on quiet and gay, the sky’s floods from storm or thaw may shoot past the piers in torrential waves—the bridge is ready for the sky’s weather and its fickle nature. Martin Heidegger ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’, in (ed. David F. Krell) Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings (trans. Albert Hofstadter) New York: Harper & Row, 1977 (orig. 1954), p. 330

Heidegger tries to get around our normal way of thinking by presenting nature as something that is constructed by our various interventions, whether or language or technology. Thus we get closest to nature not by finding wilderness, but by standing on a bridge. The bridge allows the river to flow.

To Australians, this approach may seem quite German, and a little heavy on the poetic. My hunch is that the dialogue between bridge and camera for most visitors to Watermarks: Crossings will become more evident by association with a more specific element of photographic practice—the darkroom. Here we deal more experiencially with the underside of the bridge. Like a darkroom, the space below the bridge grants us distance from the world outside.

When you spend a little time under a bridge, you are likely to experience something more than mere shade. The world passes over you. The sound of rubber on metal and wood marks out the rhythm of daily business that goes on elsewhere. Meanwhile, your space is intimate and still. This is a space of refuge.

One of the best books I have read about bridges is by the Albanian author, Ismail Kadare. The Three-Arched Bridge tells a story around the construction of a bridge linking the Christian and Islamic empires. It is emblematic of the history of the Balkans. By returning to the medieval origins of these bridges, Kadare evokes the radical change that bridges made to civilisation, the subject of a marvel then that is similar to our own appreciation of the Internet now. The narrator of Kadare’s book develops his own kind of psychology for understanding bridge behaviour.

The bridge was like an open book. As I watched the comings and goings, it seemed to me that I could grasp its essence. It sometimes seemed to me that human confidence, fear, suspicion, and madness were nowhere more deeply manifest that on its back. Some people stole over it, as if afraid of damaging it, while others went stamping across it. Ismail Kadare The Three-arched Bridge London: The Harvill Press, 1997 (orig. 1993), p. 143

The central event in Kadare’s story is the sacrifice of the builder. It was seen as essential to the longevity of the bridge that someone be bricked up alive in its pillars. This primordial sacrifice has its distant echoes in the memorialisation of bridges, evoking the names of figures that have passed away, such as the new Bolte Bridge.

We need little reminding of the powerful memorial function of photographs. To creatures of the information age, there is a shred of potential shame at the extraordinary labours of those who preceded us, as evident in the bridges across which our world has grown.

Lewens and Stanyar use the language of photography to convey the monumental yet elusive role of bridges in our landscape. At the same time, they reflect an essence within their own craft. We cross photographs to gain a perspective on a life passing by.


Kevin Murray