By Annette Hinkle
A bridge can be a lot of things to a lot of people. At it’s basic level, it’s a functional conveyance over water to get from point A to B. Then there are the metaphorical allusions — the bridging of gaps, transitioning from one existence to another, or traversing the arc of a structure and a story to denouement on the other side.
Bridges both link and divide, and as an artist, Warren Padula has put a lot of thought into Sag Harbor’s own bridge as of late. His bridge photographs currently adorn the walls of the John Jermain Memorial Library on West Water Street (the real thing is even visible out the window). Like the many structures that have spanned this stretch of water since the village’s founding, the bridge itself has come to represent a specific time and place as, notes Padula, do libraries and artists.
“Just as the artist’s job is to reflect their time using what’s available to them, the library’s job is to reflect and collect and assemble the history of the village using what’s available to it at that time — including electronic media and art shows,” says Padula who currently sees photography as a crowded room with imagery repeated so often it borders on the boring.
For that reason, Padula’s response is to take a picture and then push it to the edge using the most current tools at hand. Padula’s bridge photographs reflect just that.
“Part of my feeling is, ‘Ho, hum, another shot of the bridge at sunset. Who cares?’” explains Padula. “To some extent, I think we navigate the world in terms of a certain shorthand of patterns. We’re not looking at every leaf or detail, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to walk down the sidewalk.”
“What I’m looking at is the pattern — and the rest of it is not so necessary,” he adds. “It doesn’t matter how many leaves are on the tree. I make a photograph of something nearby that’s part of my life – and then I strip out all the parts I find boring, which is most of it.”
Then Padula works on the image like a sculptor, which in photography means he takes his straightforward shots and subjects them to Photoshop, pushing them as far as he can.
“If you go down the list of things you’re not supposed to do in Photoshop, I do it,” he explains. “If it’s a slider, I slide it all the way. When you correct photos in Photoshop you’re tiptoeing on this line trying to remain invisible. I tend to go to extremes to see what the tool actually does. A lot of the tools don’t do what they say they do.”
The result of Padula’s extreme Photoshopping pushes his photographs toward abstraction. Wild colors, moiré patterning and swirling imagery dominate the canvas. But beneath it all, his subject is still recognizable as the iconic bridge — and since embarking on this artistic path, Padula has encountered innumerable ways this structure has touched the people who live here.
“The bridge is important to me. I come over it every day from Noyac, I thought here’s this big thing to anchor a project,” says Padula. “Initially I thought it was a blank thing –I could attach myself to.”
“But as I started paying more attention to the bridge and asking others about it, it’s the center of all kinds of different stories for all sorts of different reasons and has been for a long time,” adds Padula. “It’s still going on. Now the bridge is about to slam up against the Ferry Road project.”
Officially named the Lance Corporal Jordan C. Haerter Veterans Memorial Bridge in honor of the 19-year-old Sag Harbor Marine killed in Iraq in 2008, in recent years the bridge has become a place of ceremony to honor fallen soldiers.
But the bridge is also a celebratory place — a structure which generations of Sag Harbor teens have joyously jumped from in summer.
Others have jumped from the bridge as well, including artist Ray Johnson who did so on a January day in 1995. The jump didn’t kill him, but the cold waters below did. A despondent Spalding Gray, the monologist and writer, jumped from the bridge too in 2002. He survived, only to take his own life a little more than a year later by jumping off the Staten Island ferry and into the frigid waters of New York Harbor.
These well known tales, as well as lesser-known stories Padula has heard since starting this project, have led him to believe he now knows far less about the bridge than he did when he started.
“The bridge is a crossroads, a place where all the memories of Sag Harbor intersect,” notes Padula. “Ask anyone about it and you’ll get a story. I started to see it as a space ship — like in Star Trek — that was absorbing everything and would shortly launch itself back to the other place.”
“I’m even less sure now of the shape of the bridge,” he adds. “How big it is, how many columns are under it. It’s become simplified in my mind. I know less about it physically, but metaphorically and story-wise, the bridge is much more complicated, like a huge historical novel” says Padula, “and almost unknowable.”
“The Bridge” photographs by Warren Padula remain on view at the John Jermanin Memorial Library (34 West Water Street, Sag Harbor) through September 27.