The Bridge is a diptych consisting of two black and white photographs of the bottom deck of a two-tier road bridge. The work was produced in an edition of three plus one artist’s proof; Tate’s copy is second in the edition. Each image appears to have been taken from different ends of the bridge looking down the roadway. The bridge is empty of traffic in both images, although in the right panel two white circles in the distance denote the lights of an approaching or retreating vehicle. The photographs are taken from a low perspective so that the road tilts up towards the viewer. The space between the roadway and the top deck of the bridge appears uncomfortably compressed. Steel girders score the undercarriage of top deck. The dividing line in the middle of the road forms the midpoint of each picture plane; in the image on the left this line is particularly straight. The steep tapering of the bridge accentuates the photographs’ single-point perspective. The photographs were taken in daylight; the hazy outline of buildings and trees on the opposite side of the river can be seen to the left and right of the bridge in both images. It is an overcast day; rain has slicked the surface of the road, making it reflective to the pale light.
Black and white and straightforward in appearance, Doherty’s impassive images mimic photojournalism. The bridge is nondescript in appearance; its privileged position as the focus of the camera’s gaze suggests that it may be the scene of a crime. The bridge’s emptiness becomes menacing; its darkness becomes claustrophobic.
The photographs were taken in Derry, Northern Ireland, where the artist was born and continues to live and work. The bridge depicted is the Craigavon Bridge which crosses the River Foyle, marking a point of connection between the Protestant and Catholic communities in the city. Doherty returned to this site a decade after these photographs were made to shoot footage for his video installation Re-run, 2002 (Tate T11749). Derry’s identity as a city split by sectarian violence is echoed in its dual name; it is still widely referred to by its British colonial name, Londonderry. Lying on the border between Ulster and the Republic of Ireland the city has been the site of some of the worst of the Northern Irish Troubles, most infamously Bloody Sunday on 30 January 1972, when British soldiers opened fire on protest marchers. Doherty witnessed this incident as an adolescent. Subsequent reportage led him to question the way the media represent and interpret newsworthy events. He has said, ‘After Bloody Sunday, it became clear to me that what I had seen on TV and what I had read in the newspapers didn’t in fact bear any relationship to what I had seen happen myself. So it was an experience that politicised me to some extent about how what was happening around me was being managed’ (quoted in Joan Rothfuss, ‘Willie Doherty’, No Place (Like Home), p.42).
Doherty uses the strategies of documentary photography to emphasise to the viewer how much his or her interpretation of images is predicated on the preconceived ideas that underlie the visual shorthand of news photography. The large scale and glossy finish of his images, however, take Doherty’s work beyond reportage photography. His committed conceptual practice also draws attention to the underlying ideologies that perpetuate conflict in Northern Ireland and by extension in all regions of political turmoil. The Bridge offers views from either end of a chasm; from each side the journey across looks threatening. The photographs demonstrate that the perspective may be different but the view is almost identical. The bridge divides the two communities but also links them and has the capacity to be a point of meeting and exchange.
Dan Cameron, Willie Doherty, exhibition catalogue, Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin; Grey Art Gallery, New York and Matt’s Gallery, London, 1993, reproduced pp.50-1.
Richard Flood, Douglas Fogle, Deepali Dewan, et.al, No Place (Like Home), exhibition catalogue, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1997.
Katherine Wood, Robin Klassnik and Liam Kelly, eds., Willie Doherty: same old story, exhibition catalogue, Firstsite, Colchester; Matt’s Gallery, London and Orchard Gallery, Derry, 1997.