Nat Ward’s book Big Throat is a powerful visual study of the existential realities that we as humans face. In the book, the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge in New Mexico serves as the structural framework for a photographic interpretation of existential questions. A steel deck arch bridge, and the tenth highest bridge in the United States, its iron and carbon presence is a stark contrast to the fragility and vulnerability of human life.
Ward photographs the bridge from his position standing on its deck, looking downward at the steel framework and intertwining metal beams. The black and white images, made in harsh sunlight and the dry desert environment of the American Southwest, create a disorienting perspective. Anyone with a fear of heights or vertigo might have a physical, visceral reaction to this book. The images’ strong contrast between bright highlights and dense, deep shadows render the environment vividly despite the lack of color. The angular compositions and endless entanglement of steel and shadow create a viewing experience that is more like seeing extracted pieces of a large abstract painting or charcoal drawing rather than a series of photographs.
After a while, the images start to bleed together into one overwhelming mass of monochromatic dread.
A midweight matte black paper stock provides enough density to hold the weight of the images’ rich contrast. Most of the spreads are printed full bleed. Some of the images appear to be cropped from their original full frames, resulting in a sequence that contains some internal consistency while remaining confusing and chaotic. However, the book itself could have benefited from being printed larger. The relatively small size of the physical object feels inconsistent with the expansive landscape depicted in the images.
Perspective plays an important role in Big Throat. Some images appear as if they could be upside down, and the reader must physically reorient themselves to the book. After a while, the images start to bleed together into one overwhelming mass of monochromatic dread. But this disorientation and use of perspective is necessary for both the photographer and viewer to enter a subliminal state of consciousness, where one might be able to examine and potentially purge existential demons, and to arrive at some form of cathartic release. Atop the bridge, facing the proximity of death, one can perhaps more easily process pain and overcome fear.
Ward turns his camera toward the density of the human-made structure of the bridge and the expanse of the natural landscape, capturing the real threat of being swallowed whole by the desert floor below and erased by the blistering sun above.
Ward turns his camera toward the density of the human-made structure of the bridge and the expanse of the natural landscape, capturing the real threat of being swallowed whole by the desert floor below and erased by the blistering sun above. In turn, the viewer is driven to direct their attention inward, consciously reflecting on the complexity and darkness that often settles itself at the core of our existence.
There are several excerpts of text throughout the book. Some of them are Bible verses, which we later learn were found written on suicide helpline call boxes lining the bridge. In one of these excerpts, Ward writes in his own words:
My wife is pregnant with our first child
I’m looking for my shadow hanging off a guardrail
What do I leave and what do I leave behind
It becomes clear why he came to this bridge – its steady deck serves as a viewpoint from which he can contemplate a fragile and transitional moment in his life – making sense of what it means to become a father while remaining a singular consciousness inside a singular body, ultimately unknowable to others.
Completed in 1965, the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge has stood in place for 56 years, the course of some entire human lifespans. It is a site where lives have been lost as well as saved. A bridge, in the physical and practical sense, serves the necessary purpose of connecting two points, traversing an otherwise impassable distance or space. In Big Throat, the bridge is not only a literal means of connection, but also a metaphorical viewpoint for reckoning with the reality and trajectory of one’s life. Standing on the edge and looking down at the fragility of our existence, the possibility of a new perspective might emerge from the darkness and shadows below, pulling us back into the present moment and the life still in front of us.