Only the Seen: 36 Views from the BU Bridge

Artist’s Statement

In the early nineteenth century, two classic collections of Japanese woodblock prints were published, both titled 36 Views of Mount Fuji. The first was created by Katsushika Hokusai in 1830, the second by Utagawa Hiroshige in 1858. These editions represented the pinnacle of a genre known as “ukiyo-e”—literally, “pictures of the floating, transitory world.” Through sustained contemplation of a single theme, the artists captured precious scenes from both contemporary civic life and from nature.

Though I make my living as a science journalist and editor, I began my career as a staff photographer for The Associated Press—and I have never stopped gazing through a lens at the urban and natural landscape. Last year, inspired by ukiyo-e, I embarked on a year-long photo essay entitled Only the Seen: 36 Views from the BU Bridge. The project began on January 1, 2011 and ended on December 31.

Spending hundreds of hours on this iconic and seemingly familiar landmark, I aimed to capture unlooked-for moments. The first part of the exhibit’s title comes from the Bahiya Sutta, a foundational text in the Buddhist canon, 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.” Put simply: Pay attention.

At first glance, the BU Bridge may not seem an inviting subject for contemplation. Each day, some 35,000 vehicles, 500 pedestrians, and 400 bikes jostle to cross this vital connector between Boston and Cambridge. From 2009 through 2011, MassDOT’s Boston University Bridge Rehabilitation Project turned the Bridge into a nightmarish obstacle course—a place that made people look away.

Inverting the formula of 36 Views of Mount Fuji, where the sacred mountain appears variously and sometimes incidentally in the background, I purposely foregrounded the Bridge, embracing construction materials for their aesthetic effect. Twisted wire turned into silhouetted tracery. Rows of metal poles morphed into gleaming urban totems. Reflective fencing served up surreal cityscapes. The strange shadows cast by nighttime construction lights turned the Bridge into a lyrical dreamscape.

All too often on the BU Bridge, harried travelers don’t stop to look. Ever on the move, they seldom pause to be moved. I hope that Only the Seen will show them what they may have missed.

—Madeline Drexler
March 8, 2012