Three years ago I started a personal project. I set out to photograph all the river crossings, ancient and modern, across the Tweed between Kelso and Berwick upon Tweed. The Border between Scotland and England runs along most of this section of river so each crossing entails for the most part travelling from one country to the other. That seemed as good a reason as any to start the project: reflecting on transitions of all sorts.
Sadly the project, for one reason and another, hasn’t quite gone as smoothly as I had hoped. This article is not only a reflection on how personal projects flex and adapt during their lives. It is also a status report on this particular undertaking.
Some of the river crossings were and still are bridges. Others were sites of fords, and others again were points where ferries carried passengers over the river. With over 30 crossings identified on old Ordnance Survey maps, and many more documented elsewhere, this gave me a good range of locations to visit and find ways to photograph.
So I started along the river. My plan was to take photographs with a view to creating a body of black and white images. I wasn’t particularly interested in making the locations appear conventionally pretty, relying on colour for their interest. I prefer images that ask you to examine the shapes of things rather than the kaleidoscope of colours.
And where I was photographing bridges and buildings – things – this approach worked well, and progress was reasonably swift.
There were sufficient definite shapes and shadows in the structures to make a more graphic monochrome approach work.
The repetitive nature of arched bridges, especially Stephenson’s railway bridge at Berwick, lent themselves well to my preferred way of working. But then I started visiting locations where there was no bridge, just much greenery and a flat bit of river where, say, a ferry had crossed, or pack horses had splashed across a ford.
The challenge is fairly obvious – I was going to have to labour a whole lot harder at these pictures if monochrome was going to work. And now I have some decisions to make if the project is to move ahead. Do I start to include colour images in the collection? Or do I just continue with my original plan of monochrome images only?
It would be simple to start including colour images that tell a story more immediately as this one at Banff Mill does. In monochrome, this picture taken a water level is not particularly interesting. In colour, the shades of green start differentiating themselves. You can make out more easily the reinforced tracks across the little island in the middle of the stream and the landing on the far side.
Without the obvious structure provided by the bridges, what is there about this scene of Lennel Ford that tells the viewer that this is a river crossing, albeit an unused one these days? Or does it matter? Maybe I need signposts like the dead branch pointing the way across. For me, having a coherent set of images in broadly the same style outweighs the illustrative nature of the pictures.
Get more creative
But I’m more inclined to stick to my original intention and produce only black and white images for this project. It may mean I take a while longer than I would like. It may also mean I have to get much more creative in my approach as this image illustrates. On the ground, the track is straight while the river curves and the ancient crossing is on the far right.
I will need to revisit locations like Norham, perhaps in different light conditions, to make the most of the ruins guarding the ford. But that’s no penance. Most of all it will mean just getting out there, keep looking and taking pictures.
That’s the key message from this project – keep reviewing things but just keep going. Don’t stop just because you can’t see a way forward for the moment. Maybe part of the story of the project is documenting how my original vision has morphed in its engagement with reality, just as much as is it illustrates the locations themselves.
Restating project objectives
Perhaps a statement of my current objectives could be:
Using the locations of Tweed river crossings both ancient and modern, create a body of images that illustrate both the facts of the crossings and the emotions of transitions. These transitions are both physical – from one bank/land/side to another but also of the imagination – from the literal to the lateral (using the littoral to underpin them.)
It remains to be seen just how long this plan survives engagement with the enemy!