Controlled Serendipity

Guest post by photographer David Winston

A river through a city is a great asset that is often underused. The river Thames and its bridges have been the subject for many artists. With the Illuminated River Project, the artist Leo Villareal deploys the bridges themselves as an artist’s canvas.

The tide brings in not only water, but also, carried on the surface, the reflections of the city and the sky above. Familiar buildings and landmarks are transformed to a liquid image. City lights become coloured leaves scattered on the water. A blue train speeding across Southwark Bridge becomes a flash of blue shot across the river.

One of the most brilliant things about the concept of the Illuminated River is its response to the slowly shifting tides. The pace of colour change seems beautifully in synch with the tides and so reminds us of the swirling waters below. There is also the element of surprise and even suspense: the viewer is mesmerised watching and waiting to see how one colour will lead to another. Rather than being a brash city lighting scheme, what we have is the effect of a light touch—the transparency of a skilled watercolourist’s brush.

How as a photographer can one catch this? While a photograph is captured light in a captured moment, the challenge with this project was to capture the shifting moment in a single static image. The camera is a totally objective observer only recording what is received by the lens. How often have we taken a photo and not noticed something in the photograph when we took it? That unnoticed element can spoil an image, rendering it different from what we intended. This happens because the camera does not have a human filter. The photographer’s work, then, is to filter an image accurately, as perceived through our emotion and memory.

I am not interested in the perfect image – the perfect exposure, the perfectly balanced composition – but instead want my photography to capture not just what I see in my mind’s eye at the moment I press the shutter, but for it to become an extended moment capturing what remains in the memory after I’ve seen the image: the kind of feeling an image imparts when imprints itself in our brains and floats in our senses.

To do this, I have used a combination of multiple exposure and slow shutter speed. As the colours change over the seconds of the exposure when the reflections pass under the bridges, as people or trains hurry across too, all this change and movement makes its own contribution to the outcome of the final image. So while I have some control over the final outcome, this contribution from the viewed image itself lends its own life to the final result. It is a kind of controlled serendipity.

The bridges no longer are a solid structure rooted in the riverbed, but instead become a floating lighted structure and the gilded water flows towards us as if coming from below the surface rather than a reflection.

I find the blues the most beautiful and emotional. In this photo the blue travelling below the supporting columns of the bridge seems to almost vibrate. While the strong blue remains below, the slowly changing colour palette from red to blue begins to make its way across the length of the bridge - reaching its way across the river.

How subtle the blues can be. The pink undertones slowly begin to emerge from below as we go from blue to magenta. The golden river navigation lights remain a point of reference.

How different a blue can look when placed beside a hot colour.

View through Southwark Bridge. The distant city lights below become the stars in a reversal of roles.

I love what happens here - how the colours below the bridge are a hint of the colour change to come or perhaps a remnant of what was there before. The lights of the cityscape behind and the dome of St Paul’s shift in sync with the tide.

As the train hurried across the bridge towards Cannon Street station the lights on the bridge below followed in sync. I love what happened to the line of windows and the indistinct figures of the passengers. The hot colour of the orange becomes a smoky purple on the surface of the river. The buildings in the skyscape appear to be emerging from the river. All the colours combined make us ask: ‘What is the colour of the night? Is it blue, is it red, is it black?'

About David Winston

The photographer, David Winston, was born in Los Angeles and moved to the UK in 1970 and travels extensively with his camera. He has always sought out cities on the water. Like many artists before him, he has been drawn to the city of Venice as a constant source of inspiration and now divides his time between Venice and the UK.

With his photography he has sought ways to work beyond the constraints of modern digital imagery. This has led him to both look back to the earliest photographic processes and also develop his own alternative ways of producing a photographic image:

The two major elements of magic and emotion are the driving forces behind my photography.The camera is a completely objective observer, simply recording everything the lens sees, rather than filtering it through our individual human perceptions. The use of alternative photo processes allows me to work with the more painterly aspects of photography-- to portray what I see in a more subjective way. The art for me is to produce a photograph that engages our imagination.’

His work displays the detached, watchful eye of the outsider, evidenced in his evocative and atmospheric images.