100 beats of the clock
In 2011, Middlesbrough celebrated the 100th anniversary of its iconic Transporter Bridge. As well as the expected fireworks to mark the 100 years since the bridge opened to the public, the Council, with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund, commissioned four local artists to produce work linked to the bridge. I was one of the winners with a project entitled “100 beats of the clock”.
The Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge stands as a historical testament of local industry. Although it was not designed on Teesside or built by a local company, it has been adopted and welcomed to the family. As one of the largest and most distinctive survivors of modernisation in Middlesbrough, it has come to symbolise the town. It also symbolises a way of working and a particular sense of aesthetics. The project reflects these many facets: heritage, Middlesbrough & Teesside, craftsmanship & labour-intensive industry and not least the iconic bridge itself.
The project consists of 100 photographs of the bridge taken in the course of a single day, on a time-honoured half-plate camera fitted with a Rapid Rectilinear lens older than the bridge itself. I placed the camera in a single position and shot at regular intervals throughout the hours of daylight from sun rise till sun down on the 15th of November 2011. This way, the composition is static but the position of the tide moves and the direction of the light changes as the day progresses. Although all the pictures are superficially the same and thereby part of an edition, in fact they evolve through the sequence. The 100 pictures are not a monotonous repetition but a unified whole, symbolising the passage of time. Each picture then represents a year, a beat of the clock.
The regularity of the photographs reminds the viewer of the many rhythms associated with the bridge. The commuters come and go with their shifts. The tide ebbs and flows beneath the gondola which runs to and fro every 15 minutes. Repetitive tasks were also commonly the lot of the builders of the bridge and their contemporaries. The beats of the clocks would thus chime with the mechanisation of society which made the bridge both possible and necessary. The shoot itself, with its repetitive gestures, may be interpreted as performance art and a symbol of labour-intensive work. This project is an elaborate homage to the town's workers – human and mechanical, present and past – and their industry as much as a celebration of the bridge's centenary.
Other parallels may be drawn between this project, the Bridge and existing art forms. Just as all the cast iron parts in the bridge are subtly different, so there are variations from one print to the next. This variation – due to the passage of time, to the human element of craftsmanship and to other random vagaries such as the glare on the water – gives the ensemble its soul. This emergent property is key to certain art forms and notably to repetitive minimalist pieces, where all the figures are alike but slightly different: examples abound in sculpture & installation (Antony Gormley’s ‘Field’, Ai Weiwei’s ‘Sunflower Seeds’) and music (Terry Riley’s ‘In C’, John Adams’ ’Phrygian Gates’).
This project treads unfamiliar ground by applying these principles to photography. Minimalism in photography is most commonly associated with simplicity – the representation of a single defined object within a monotonic field. Repetition is used within individual pictures for textural effects, which is also radically different to this project’s use. Another well-known technique based on repetition is stop-motion photography. Although superficially similar, this technique’s purpose is to create a moving image. The purpose of this project however, is to represent and celebrate the passage of time since the bridge’s opening. It is not the variations in the scene per se which are important, but the root cause of those variations. The results bear a passing resemblance to the plates of Bernd and Hilla Becher who analysed and classified their industrial subjects. They more closely echo Andy Warhol’s prints with the same ‘view’ but different colour schemes; aptly for this project, his studio was called the Factory. Thereby, this project is rooted in and contributes to the artistic field of photography.
For “100 beats of the clock”, I turned my back on modern technology a little further than usual to use camera equipment which would have been available in 1911, when the bridge was inaugurated. The images were furthermore captured on the modern equivalent of printing-out paper which was also in favour at the time: Harman’s Direct Positive Paper. As a result, the print that is on display in the exhibition is the very paper that was exposed in the camera. By the nature of the process, each print is unique and directly related to the time and place of its creation, and therefore to the bridge itself. This method constitutes a live performance where, unlike in digital photography, there is no undo button: every mistake is in full view and part of the project.
The public have the opportunity to acquire a framed print and thus own a part of this significant body of work. Each one alludes to a larger work of art which is disseminated in to the population, making this a genuine case of public ownership. The physical embodiment of the project’s concepts will, in a sense, be destroyed but equally each individual picture offers a way for the viewer’s imagination to conceive of the whole. Each new owner has the responsibility for an insight in to the story; in this way, they can appropriate the whole work and pass on their interpretations. In addition to its symbolic content, “100 beats of the clock” addresses a question which has niggled artists for generations – who owns their art? – and proposes that art can be in the mind of the beholder.
The framed prints are unique works of art that cannot be replicated. They are available for sale at £40 each. For information on how to purchase the framed prints, please contact me or visit Gallery TS1 in Middlesbrough.