The Bridge

The Trent: Gunthorpe Bridge, Ben Dolman 2013

It has been some time since my last post working on one of my current projects photographing the River Trent and the surrounding land, recently I have found myself revisiting the same location again and again over the course of the year from spring to autumn and in this post I will try to understand why this particular place has caught my attention. The location of interest is Gunthorpe Bridge that is the only bridge crossing over the River Trent between Nottingham and Newark, there is nothing special at first glance about the place, it is a place of  transit either by road or river but I decided to stop one day and look at it more closely.

The bridge is next to Gunthorpe a small village in Nottinghamshire that developed into a settlement during Roman times when it was established as a river crossing, the first crossing was a ford and then by ferry that was replaced later by a toll bridge that was in turn rebuilt in 1927 when it was taken over by the council to become a free bridge. On the south bank of the river next to the bridge there is a meadow that runs for about half a mile along side the river. On passing the meadow one day I notice a trace of a path in the grass, a subtle path that led to the river, it was a path made by humans not animals and the path led to a fishing spot on the river bank.

Paths and the traces of humans in the landscape have figured in the work of quite a few contemporary artists and photographers from Richard Long’s 'A Line Made by Walking - England' made in 1967 whose photographs document his repeated steps that leave lines on the landscape to Jeff Wall’s photograph entitled 'The Crooked Path' 1991. In Jitka Hanzlova's 'Forest: Wet Morning Grass' 2003 the grass may have or not been walked on but it invites you to do so, to trespass and leaves one’s mark, a mark of passage and transit, photography is apt in documenting these traces and incursions in the landscape as seen in Jennifer Ray’s photograph ‘Summer Grass’ 2009.

When I took my first photograph of the path in the meadow a local came over to see what I was up to, after explaining my River Trent project he informed me that the grass would be cut soon. I thought this was a one off photograph but each subsequent time I returned to the meadow over the summer expecting the grass to be cut I found it untouched. The meadow had been left alone and nature was allowed to thrive enabling the grass to grow tall interwoven with an abundance of wild flowers and other plants that by the end of the summer the river became obscured from the original vantage point but the path remained ever so slight with just enough human steps through the meadow to keep it defined in the landscape.

Each individual photograph of the path is nothing special, much like the place they were taken but placed together they become more than their parts which is quite often the case with photography as when sequenced over time the visual story can gain greater depth and richness, the mundane becomes complex, visually stimulating and sometimes beautiful. On one morning I visited the meadow there had been a heavy dew and as looked down into the grass the meadow floor there was swarming in a black sea of slugs, you could not place your foot down without coming into contact with them, a very surreal experience, on the surface from afar just a grassy meadow but close up a battle between plant and insect life.

The Trent: 'Path' - Autumn [detail from triptych], Ben Dolman 2013

The Trent: 'Path' - Spring, Summer, Autumn - Triptych, Ben Dolman 2013

In the next series of photographs taken at Gunthorpe Bridge I decided to follow the path down to the river’s edge where the fishing spot or ‘peg’ as they called it in the angling fraternity is located, along the river bank of the meadow there are three fishing pegs in all that I use as a vantage point to work from, the place where the anglers perch waiting for their prey.

I started to think about the anglers who sit at these locations all day, do they just look at the water watching their floats waiting for the fish to bite, do they study the woods on the far river bank and the surrounding landscape, do they catch the reflected clouds in the water as they drift by in the distant sky, do they leave there worldly cares behind and dream and wonder as the hours pass like that of the river flowing beneath them? When I was a teenager I use to do quite a bit of fishing, I was not good at it and I was lucky if I caught a stickleback that were a real pain to unhook and return to the water but I enjoyed spending the day outside. Remaining in the same location for long periods of time allows you to take in the details and see subtle changes in nature, the landscape and the weather, the solitude and absence of distraction - no mobile phones back then or now in my case - allows one to ponder on things, to day dream in those long moments when nothing seems to happen that is often the case when hunting as you wait for the prey.

Photography for me is no different to that fishing though I hope my photography is an improvement on my inapt ability to catch fish, now on the banks of the River Trent instead of waiting for the fish to bite I am waiting for the breeze to stop, the light to be just right, the subject to reveal itself before hitting the shutter release, the fishing peg has become the photography peg. In the first photographs the path leading to the river was main element that I focused on, the river was just a slither bisecting landscape and over the summer the river became less visible as the vegetation grew. In the next series of photographs the river and the sky become the main elements of the pictorial composition with the land now just a slither that horizontally bisects the photograph. The photographs are in sequence like the path series and I will be returning to the same photography pegs during the winter to rephotograph the scene so as to observe the changes in the landscape.

The Trent: 'The Bridge' [detail from triptych], Ben Dolman 2013

The Trent: 'The Bridge' - Triptych, Ben Dolman 2013

The Trent: 'Doll', Ben Dolman 2013

Crossing the Bridge

After working on the south bank of the river I decided to explore the north bank as there seemed be a pathway  as I kept on seeing people walking along the river bank. Crossing the bridge you enter Gunthorpe village and on the river bank there is a bridleway that leads you under the bridge back along the north bank of the River Trent. The bridleway is bordered by deep vegetation and mature trees and the relationship to the river is very different to that of the meadow on the south bank. On the south bank one is in the open, the vista is wide and the sky looms large but walking down the bridleway the vista is restricted offering only occasional glimpses of the river, sky and the land beyond, in winter it will be different but in late summer and early autumn the lush greenery consumed the view and offers an intimate, enclosed and protective passage.

The Trent: 'Under the Bridge', Ben Dolman 2013

There are gaps in the bridleway made for anglers and I used one of the fishing pegs again to photograph from. This time I was photographing into a southern sky which I do not do often due to lens flare issues and the risk of an over exposed sky but it was overcast so I thought I would give it a go. On reviewing the test photographs taken from the north bank of the river I am glad I took them as the trees on the far bank were illuminated by northern light giving the foliage a cooler blue coloration that combined with the still water gave a slightly otherworldly appearance to the photographs which can seen below and set against the photographs taken from the south river bank which are warmer in their hue makes for an interesting but subtle contrast.

The Trent: 'The Other Side', Ben Dolman 2013

At the bottom of the bridleway the woodland clears and one enters an open space, a space where for the first time since the bridge one can see both sides of the river. Below is a quick snap shot of the location and it would be interesting to revisit the same location with the Ebony 45SU large format camera that I have booked out from my workplace the School of the Arts at Loughborough University, yes we have rather nice kit. The Ebony camera has an asymmetrical back and when you use a decent 180 mm to 240 mm lens that offers a large image circle in conjunction with the front and rear camera lateral shift movements you can produce two photographs that cover the scene side by side without the need for panoramic stitching and other post editing work. The splitting or presenting the vista as a diptych would work well in this scene bisecting the photographs at the river to convey the sense of the river as a barrier in the landscape as well as a means of passage.

A photographer who deploys the bisected image or the diptych to good effect is Bleda y Rosa  in ‘Camos de batalla’ that I came across in an essay in Photomonitor. In the Camos de batalla project Bleda y Rosa has photographed different locations where battles have been fought throughout Europe’s history, often there are no clues in the photograph that great battles had taken place in the landscapes, time has healed the physical scars, the slaughtered buried, battlements have been ploughed back into the land or hidden under a carpet of trees and scrubland, only by looking and checking the title and date of the photograph can one unearth what the subject is, its past and what happened there. From the Camos de batalla series the photograph entitled ‘Austerlitz’ stood out for me taken 200 years after the Battle of Austerlitz and it is interesting comparing two depiction’s of this battle. The first is a painting by Francois Gerard which is a highly subjective historical re-enactment that glorifies Napoleon’s victory of the battle and depicts the moment the flags of the vanquished are brought to Napoleon at the top of a hill whilst Bleda y Rosa’s photograph offers a simple uneventful documentation of the battlefield that can be viewed on slide number 12 in the Europa section of Campos de Batalla at All that is shown in Bleda y Rosa’s photograph of the ‘Battle of Three Emperors’ [noting the other name the battle is referred to] is a track running beside a ploughed field running to the horizon lined with trees under an overcast sky, the glory and the carnage of war are no-longer visible and present, there is only a title and date that give reference to its past, a past that has been consigned to history, a memory lacking any physical reference.

What is interesting when viewing these two depictions is which one offers the richer interpretation of the battle and what actually happened there on that day over two hundred years ago, was it Gerard’s emotional illustrative  painted narrative or Rosa’s dead pan photographic document? One image tells you what should be known whilst the other leads you to ask questions of the place, one dictates the story whilst the other image allows you to create the story yourself by mentally re-enacting the event from past human memories.

The Trent: 'Two Banks' [test location shot], Ben Dolman 2013

Walking down the bridleway I came across a damaged tree where one of it’s large lower limbs had been broken off and then sawn up to make it safe but that was not what originally caught my eye and drew me to photograph the tree, it was a single sock carefully placed hanging from one of the tree branches. Why was the sock placed there, why on this particular tree, why that position on the tree just at the level where the river came into view behind the foliage? I could not have set up the scene better if I tried and I kept on asking questions. Was the sock left by a swimmer or was it thrown from the bridge and it just happen to land on the limb of the tree, was there something darker behind the placement of the sock or was it just kids mucking about, whatever  had led to the sock being placed just so felt right as a subject for this side of the river, the south bank of the river was exposed and open but the north bank of the river was more enclosed, hidden, introverted and had a slightly mysterious feel about it.

The Trent: 'Sock' [b/w large format version], Ben Dolman 2013

The Trent: 'Sock', Ben Dolman 2013

To the right of the bridleway [bridle: curb, check, restraint, control but appended to way gives bridleway that allows for public the right of way through private land] that runs along the north bank of the River Trent leading back to Nottingham from Gunthorpe there are a series of lakes that were originally quarry workings mining the deposits of sediment left by past courses of the river. Throughout the course of the River Trent quarries are a common feature in flood planes and after the gravel has been removed the pitted landscape is returned as a network of lakes.

These man made lakes act as havens for nature, wildlife and humans, at Gunthorpe there are quite a few of these lakes but one caught my eye, it is the smallest of the lakes and it seems to be the oldest of the lakes with a mature woodland enveloping it. The lake is hidden from view and this seems to have led to it being less used and maintained to that of the other lakes that are heavily used for fishing. The lakes are surrounded with fishing pegs [pegs are sites cleared to allow anglers access to the water and some have wooden or concrete platforms] and quite often you see newly discarded tin cans of sweetcorn and spam that are used for bait for fish but are removed on subsequent visits, the pegs seem monitored, cleaned up and maintained on the more popular fishing lakes. The fishing pegs at the lake which interested me had the piles old and rusting cans that were never disturbed, the lake had been laid to rest except at one clearing and in the middle of the clearing was a camp fire. The camp fire seemed to be in regular use as each time I visited the site different burnt remains were left and the ground around the camp fire was worn down with little or no vegetation. The lake seemed to be used for more covert activities taking place during the twilight hours of young people seeking kinship with others as they explore and venture towards adulthood leaving behind their innocence away from the eyes of their elders.

The vista from the clearing across the lake reminded me of the work of Claude Lorrain whose classical idealised Italian pastoral landscapes evoked or seek a harmony between man and nature in a lost eden, an eden that has now fallen and become a Paradise Lost as we live in an age of scientific reason.

The Trent: 'Haven' [b/w large format version], Ben Dolman 2013

The Trent: 'Haven', Ben Dolman 2013