In his new book, actor Jeff Bridges uses wide-angle photography to show us the "nuts and bolts of fantasy" behind the scenes of his many films.
Actor Jeff Bridges, a four-time Academy Award nominee (The Last Picture Show, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Starman and The Contender) and recent Golden Globe nominee (Seabiscuit), has managed such a feat simply by documenting the world around him, scene by scene, location by location.
As the son of actor Lloyd Bridges, Jeff Bridges has been immersed in the fantasy-like world of Hollywood films and studio sets his entire life. Together with older brother and fellow actor Beau Bridges, he grew up fascinated by the intricacies of film, both still and moving.
In Bridges' latest photography book, Pictures, released by powerHouse Books in the fall of 2003, the subject matter is exactly that: candid photographic excerpts from movies that he has made, and images of the costars and behind-the-scenes folks who make scripts and false-front movie sets come to life.
Through the black-and-white stills that Bridges exhibits in galleries and includes in his books, he candidly examines movie-making for what it is — fantasy — while simultaneously celebrating the "gee whiz" feeling he says he still experiences when starting a new movie or project.
In love with the camera
Before Bridges was making movies, he was taking photographs. "I've been taking pictures and making movies for most of my life," he reminisces in the text of Pictures.
"The first shot (in the book] is of my mom and dad. It's one of my earliest and probably my favorite," he writes. "I'd forgotten all about it. It was wonderful to rediscover. It's got a lot of depth for me, so much mystery. When I look at it, I see my beginnings. I see the relationship I was born into, their love for each other and the trials they endured, the grace that held them together."
It was his dad's camera, a Nikon, that Bridges used to capture that image. "I started taking pictures (with it] in high school. I set up a darkroom and would lose track of time, developing and printing for hours and hours, listening to FM radio in the red safelight."
Bridges admits to preferring some portions of the image-making process over others. "I must say, I never really enjoyed developing negatives. It's probably the most important part of the whole process, but what I loved was the printing, watching those images come out of the ‘soup.' Seeing that proof sheet of pictures I'd taken weeks before and forgotten all about, that's what I loved.
"To this day," Bridges writes, "looking at a proof sheet for the first time is like opening a Christmas present I've given to myself. What a great surprise, to see what the camera saw, what worked and what didn't, to feel the moment of the picture all over again."
Bridges, now 54, admits that he was more interested in establishing his career as an actor in the 1960s and 1970s than he was in taking photographs. "I didn't get back into it seriously," he writes, "until 1976, when I did the remake of King Kong. I was playing a character named Jack Prescott. Jack was a paleontologist who happened to carry a motor-driven Nikon with him wherever he went. In preparation for the role, I started taking pictures again."Mastering the Widelux
Aside from his talent on the silver screen, Bridges is best known for his work using a Widelux camera. "The first time I came across (a Widelux) was in high school," he recounts in his book. "We had been gathered together to take our class photo. The photographer had a Widelux. He explained how it worked. Some kids figured if they ran very quickly, they could beat the panning lens and be in the picture twice. They were right."
Bridges credits his wife, Susan, with rekindling his interest in the Widelux format at their wedding. "(Photographer] Mark Hanauer used one to take some photographs at the party," he writes. "I really admired them, the way they showed movement and slurred time. There was so much information in the picture, so much to look at."
Susan gave Bridges a Widelux as a wedding gift, and he has spent more than 20 years perfecting his work with it. "I use the 35mm version," he writes. "It's got a 28mm lens that pans nearly 180 degrees. Instead of a traditional shutter, it has a slit that, as the lens pans, exposes the film."
Inspired by his high school pals' high jinks of running to be captured on film twice, Bridges "started using (that] technique to take pictures of actors creating the theatrical masks of tragedy and comedy. The result was someone frowning and smiling at himself, all on one negative."
Interestingly enough, Bridges' big-name costars over the years, who assiduously avoid the paparazzi — Michelle Pfeiffer, Robin Williams, Julianne Moore, Salma Hayek, Lauren Bacall, Kevin Spacey — were only too happy to mug for Bridges, or at least were comfortable being captured on film by his lens.
It was a costar on the movie Starman who encouraged Bridges to compile his candids from the movie's filming into an album for the cast and crew, a practice that has now become a tradition for him.
"Karen Allen saw some of my Widelux shots and suggested that we combine them with Sid Baldwin's (the unit photographer] to make a book for the cast and crew," he writes. "Karen's brainstorm marked the beginning of a series of privately published ‘albums.' These were given in appreciation to the cast and crew of 16 of the films I've worked on since. Each celebrates the work we did together."
Some of the stills from those personal albums populate Pictures, and the unique abilities of both the Widelux and the man behind it capture the eye of the reader.
"The Widelux is a fickle mistress," asserts Bridges. "Its viewfinder isn't accurate and there's no manual focus, so it has an arbitrariness to it, a capricious quality. I like that. It's something I aspire to in all my work — a lack of preciousness that makes things more human and honest, a willingness to receive what's there in the moment and to let go of the result. Getting out of the way seems to be one of the main tasks for me as an artist."
Acting and photography aren't Bridges' only forms of artistic expression. He paints and has recorded an album of original songs with musician David Crosby. An advocate for the homeless and hungry, Bridges wrote the introduction to Salvo Galano's Sidewalk Stories (powerHouse Books, 2001), which presents photographs of those Galano met and befriended near a New York City soup kitchen.
One of Bridges' early Widelux photos captured director William Richert and costar Bianca Jagger between takes on the set of The American Success Company in 1979. "It's almost as if the camera has peripheral vision," he writes, "registering multiple stories within a single frame."Copyright © Jeff Bridges He is dedicating the proceeds from Pictures to another cause close to his heart, the Motion Picture & Television Fund, a nonprofit organization that offers charitable care and support to film-industry workers.
If Bridges' love and fascination with movies and moviemaking is obvious in his photography, he also is careful to expose both sides, backstage and onstage, of the process.
About an image titled simply "Soundstage, ‘Fearless,' 1993" Bridges writes, "You find images like this on movie sets all the time; stairs going nowhere, racks of clothes, lights, props and backdrops . . . the nuts and bolts of fantasy."
Or, as Bridges muses, "Taking pictures on movie sets exposes a bit of the magic. It unmasks things that were never meant to be seen. Peeking behind the curtain is fascinating, but I am also ambivalent about revealing too much — showing how the rabbit is pulled out of the hat. I don't know that it's impossible to expose the real magic. The real magic is too deep, and the deeper you dig, the deeper it goes."