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Finding the Beauty in the BU Bridge

Photographer’s yearlong project captures bridge in all its moods

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Mention the BU Bridge to most people and you’re likely to elicit complaints about its seemingly endless construction, numerous accidents, and frequent gridlock. Before the rehab work began in 2009, the steel truss span that connects Boston and Cambridge had graffiti and patches of rust.

While thousands of motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians cross the 83-year-old Boston landmark each day, few stop to enjoy either its breathtaking views or its architectural majesty. But a new photography show in Cambridge finally gives the bridge due respect.

Award-winning journalist and photographer Madeline Drexler spent all of 2011 photographing the BU Bridge, at virtually every hour of the day and in every weather condition. Armed with a Nikon Coolpix P6000, which she bought used on eBay from a Floridian named George (who left photos of his dog on the camera), Drexler shot the bridge at dawn, dusk, and often in the dead of night, when her only companions were construction workers. She captured the bridge in blizzards and during a hurricane. She says her goal was to show viewers the bridge’s immense beauty, even amidst deconstruction and reconstruction.

“As a culture we are always on the move, and we seldom pause to be moved,” says science writer Drexler, editor of the Harvard Public Health Review. “I hope these photographs show what people may have missed.” Many of the images were taken as Drexler walked to or from her home in Cambridge to work in Boston.

Her project began when she received a Cambridge Arts Council grant, and her images are now on view in a show titled Only the Seen: 36 Views from the BU Bridge at Gallery 263 in Cambridge. The exhibition comprises 12 triptychs, each focusing on a different aspect of the bridge, including color, texture, and mood.

Her project was inspired by two early 19th-century collections of Japanese woodblock prints, both with the title 36 Views of Mt. Fuji. The first was created by Katsushika Hokusai in 1830, the second by Utagawa Hiroshige in 1856. Both epitomize a genre Drexler was drawn to, known as “ukiyo-e” or “pictures of the floating, transitory world,” which centers on the contemplation of a single theme. Thus began her quest to capture the bridge in a quiet, meditative way.

The inspiration for the exhibition’s title, Only the Seen, is an excerpt from the Bahiya Sutta, a foundation text in the Buddhist cannon, in which the Buddha says: “In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed…That is how you should train yourself.” Or, as Drexler interprets it, “Pay attention.”

BU Today recently spoke with Drexler, a former Associated Press staff photographer, about her project, what she discovered about the bridge’s different personalities, and braving the ferocity of Hurricane Irene for the sake of her art.

BU Today: How did the project begin?

Drexler: I had taken a job in the Harvard medical area and I found myself walking to and from work on the BU Bridge, which I hadn’t visited all that much before. It just struck me as a very contemplative place even though it was undergoing this onerous and odious reconstruction. I found it to be a very engaging place. It was the fall of 2010, I wasn’t looking for a photo project, but this idea just came unbidden to me to photograph the BU Bridge for a year. And even at that time, even before I started photographing, I knew the title, I knew the subtitle, I knew that the photographs would appear as 12 triptychs. Somehow I perceived the project as a whole. So I did a yearlong visual meditation on the bridge. I started on January 1, 2011, and ended on December 31. And during that time I photographed the bridge in every possible perspective, every angle, every conceivable weather condition, at sunrise, and at sunset.

Did your view of the bridge change in the course of the year?

Yes, it did. When you get to know any subject well, your understanding of it grows more complex, and I certainly feel that way about this bridge. Most people go back and forth on the bridge and they just want to get across, but I wanted to stay in that one place and get to know it, in all its moods and all its colorations. And I noticed that the photographs themselves evolved. I started out photographing everything in almost a documentary form, or with a documentary impulse, but then around March or April I understood that the project would be a dreamscape. So here’s this very frenetic place, this very bustling obstruction-strewed span, and I wanted to portray the quiet moments in it.

What was it about ukiyo-e that inspired you?

Ukiyo-e means “pictures of the floating, transitory world,” and I thought, that’s how I want to approach this project. I wanted to capture moments on this bridge that these harried travelers crossing the bridge are probably going to miss. So these are pictures taken in a very busy and noisy place, but they are quiet. Night construction itself was quiet and that’s why I especially loved being there at night, because they closed off the bridge at either end. It really was a contemplative place and a meditative space.

Is there a particular experience on the bridge that remains with you?

There was a lot of drama and a lot of humor; it was all those things and everything in between. Some of the most dramatic scenes were during the burning and laying of asphalt at night. When they burn asphalt, they pour fire into this metal kettle, heat it to 3,000 degrees, and at a certain temperature, the kettle starts spewing out these great white billows of fumes. These white fumes just fill the sky and it’s an apocalyptic scene, very beautiful at night—although it has a stench for sure. Some of the most dramatic shots in the exhibition are of asphalt fumes.

There were many, almost countless, wonderful moments. I was there during Hurricane Irene. I was photographing the outer bands of the hurricane on the night of August 27 when the early waves were starting to hit. One of the shots in the show is of the early hours of Hurricane Irene—these drenching rains. And then I went out again the next morning when the full force of the hurricane hit Boston. It was crazy and I was the only person out there for a reason: it was simply too dangerous. I started to venture out on the bridge and there was no question that I would’ve been blown over the side and into the water. It was very frightening. That was the one and only time I came home early from the bridge.

Does the bridge’s personality vary in different conditions?

Yes, it takes on different personalities with weather, with fog, with drenching rain, sunsets—each sunset is unique, it seems some are quite dramatic. Mist on the Charles is very beautiful from the bridge. You get these great vistas on both sides of the bridge, and mist plays beautifully on the river and on the skyline. There are a lot of moody pictures, painterly pictures. And then of course there was the construction material: reflective barrels, reflective fencing, concrete Jersey barriers that were stained and very interesting, green netting, metal poles, black rubber tarps, yellow signage. And so you had all those objects and then headlights and taillights reflecting off of them, so it made for a very visually complex scene. Of course, the motorists and bikers just wanted to negotiate all of that stuff, but as a walker, and above all, as a photographer, I relished all of those objects.

Did you meet new people on the bridge? Did they look at you funny?

I was often photographing on the ground, especially at night, and there were many times that people not only looked at me funny, but almost ran over—or biked over—me. I was quiet, but I did get to know some of the construction workers—not by name, but we had casual conversations. They would explain what they were doing and would tip me off to some interesting construction things that would be going on. They were nice. And I brought them pictures of themselves doing their jobs in November and December. I thought I owed them that at least.

Will you miss the time you spent on the bridge?

No, I won’t miss it—I have it. I loved that year. It was a very exuberant experience. If you’re completely absorbed in a project, you lose your sense of self. There’s just a very lightness in your being, and that’s how it was during this project. So I walk across the bridge and it actually looks kind of bland now that the construction materials are gone. Every time I cross it, I have to say, I’m very grateful. I kind of thank it because it gave me so many wonderful experiences.

Is there another Boston landmark you’re interested in photographing?

No, not right now. I don’t know what my next project will be. It will come to me in the same way this one came to me, which was absolutely out of the blue. All of these pictures were unexpected. Sometimes when you go out on a photo project or a photo mission, you have ideas of what you want to bring back, but what I discovered was that you never knew what was going to be on that bridge. Never. And it was refreshing; it helps you keep your eyes open. Every one of these photos was a surprise.

What do you hope viewers take away from the exhibition?

We are such a stressed society; we are always rushing headlong to the next thing. I hope that they take away the idea to not always be on the move, but to pause and be moved. Because when you do, you see the world in a different way. You see things you might not see otherwise.

Only the Seen: 36 Views from the BU Bridge is at Gallery 263, 263 Pearl St., Cambridge, until Sunday, March 25. The gallery is open Thursdays and Fridays from 1 to 6 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. By public transportation, take any MBTA Red Line train (outbound) or any #47 or #70 bus to Central Square. Walk 10 minutes down Pearl St. from Mass Ave.

Drexler will speak about her work in an artist talk on Friday, March 16, at the gallery at 7 p.m. The show is sponsored by the Cambridge Arts Council and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Tom Vellner can be reached at tvellner@bu.edu.

4 Comments

4 Comments on Finding the Beauty in the BU Bridge

  • Catherine Caldwell-Harris on 03.15.2012 at 10:13 am

    I was moved by this essay, and the photos and my memories of the bridge they elicited. Having taught at BU for many years, and living in Cambridgeport for 7 of those, I’ve spent a lot of time crossing the BU bridge, mostly by bike and bus. The bridge is a big memory in my pregnancy because I rode my bike into my 4th month of pregnancy, but I had severe shortage-of-breath problems during months 3 and 4 (and later of course). Riding from my office, by the time I got to the BU bridge (and navigating the construction etc), I had to pull over and lean against the balustrade or even lie down on the concrete, panting. That is a very intimate position to be with a bridge, to be lying on it, to have one’s head pressed on its surface, or to be kneeling on it, gasping, waiting to recover one’s air capacity.. With all the biking and other physical activities in my life, I’ve never been so completely at my physical limit than during those moments. After recovering, in fewer than 5 minutes I’d be home…

  • Robin B. on 03.15.2012 at 1:35 pm

    These are beautiful photos, and an interesting perspective on the BU Bridge that captures Drexler’s final thought, “I hope that they take away the idea to not always be on the move, but to pause and be moved. Because when you do, you see the world in a different way. You see things you might not see otherwise.”

  • Not Seeing It on 03.15.2012 at 1:50 pm

    I don’t really see what’s so great here. These look like not-so-great photos that have been over-processed to make them look half-way decent.

  • SDF on 03.15.2012 at 2:04 pm

    Very beautiful images. I am looking forward to going to Gallery 263 to hear the photographer speak.
    One comment: the speed of the slide show is too fast. I would like to linger for a moment longer on each image once the title has faded.
    Thanks!

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