Selected as the Photograd winner of the recent call for entries on the theme of superstition, Silas Dominey's series The Striding Place presents the hidden history of the river Wharfe.
On the grounds of Bolton Priory there is a place called the Strid where the full breadth of the River Wharf is turned sideways through an unmapped tangle of underwater caverns.
While beautiful, it has a macabre history. At the narrowest point the river appears just wide enough to cross at a leap. Many who have tried slip and fall to their deaths. Years of erosion have channelled out an underwater tomb below. The bodies of the drowned rarely surface.
These photos are about this place and the unique qualities that make it so dangerous and alluring.
Photoworks: What was it about the theme of superstition that you felt The Striding Place responded to?
Silas Dominey: Having grown up in Yorkshire, I’ve known the Strid my whole life. We used to go and swim in the River Wharfe when I was little (downstream, obviously), so even when I was very young I was told the Strid had a kind of hidden menace. I don’t think I knew what it was but it was made clear to me never to go near it. When I started researching the history of the place all these dark little stories emerged, for example the landscape painter Arthur Reginald Smith, who drowned in the Wharf leaving his easel on the banks. Eventually they found his body with the help of a water diviner. When I was making the work I was thinking about my own childhood superstitions and also the local lore and history of the place.
PW: The Striding Place combines natural beauty of a hidden place and its morbid history. What was the fascination for you?
SD: The initial brief for the work came from our Experimental Practice module at university. The subject given was Labyrinth, so that set me off thinking about rivers and caves. Once I’d settled on the Strid as a subject, the fascination was just to see how the reality of the place compared to my own memory as I hadn’t been back there in many years. Then I started to think about ways of describing the qualities of the place and the way they come together to make it so dangerous.
PW: What do you think of the compulsion to make this leap, even while knowing of its potentially fatal outcome?
SD: I can’t imagine being tempted to try and cross it. When you’re there it feels incredibly dangerous. Because the water level rises and falls so often, the rocks are covered in this slippery moss. They all seem to slant inward towards the water. But I guess it’s a bit like when people have the urge to jump out of a moving car, we all have these strange compulsions from time to time.
PW: How do you allude to the hidden caves and history piled up beneath the surface and how does photography capture that sense?
SD: When I started work on the project, it was clear to me that it wasn’t enough to just make a series of landscape images from the area. For a start, the grounds of Bolton Priory are very classically beautiful in a way that I wasn’t necessarily interested in. I started by looking for visual motifs that would help sell my point of view, like the foam churned up by the rapids to form a dark circle. Also, there were features of the river that I couldn’t really convey with straight photography, which is how the paper sculptures came about. The history is all around you. The first image, the view of the river from above, is taken from a vantage point where William Turner painted the River Wharfe with a distant view of Barden Tower in 1815. I made a few images from there, but it was only when I’d foolishly stayed too late and was stumbling back to the car in the dark that I got an image that worked.