I have always been a fan of Jeff Bridges’ acting but was surprised to learn this week he is an accomplished art photographer and sculptor whose work has appeared in Premiere and Aperture magazines, at galleries in New York, Los Angeles, London, and Italy, and at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego.
His first midwestern show, “Jeff Bridges: Pictures,” some 50 prints on paper and aluminum, and a dozen sculpted earthenware heads, is at The Sheldon in St. Louis. Paula Lincoln, Gallery Manager and curator, told me Bridges was a photographer before he began to act, and his mentor was photographer Mary Ellen Mark. He has shot on sets for 30 years and makes books of the photos to give to cast and crew; some of those photos were published in Pictures One and Two, which profit the Motion Picture & Television Fund.
The photos in this show were shot exclusively with a Widelux F8 panoramic film camera, which Bridges calls “sort of a missing link between still photography and moving pictures.” It is excellent with landscapes—some of the prints on display measure are more than four feet wide—but Bridges was reticent about having the landscapes in the show and prefers to shoot people and film sets, often in low light, with 3200 ASA film. The speed of the black and white film often makes the images grainy and gritty, and the camera’s moving lens bends and distorts human portraits and enclosed spaces like a time warp. Bridges uses this to good effect, including in a series where he asked each of his subjects—actors such as Hailee Steinfeld and Josh Brolin from True Grit, and his brother Beau Bridges and father Lloyd—to make the faces of the muses of tragedy and comedy, and captured the two poses in a single shot with a blur of distortion between.
As one might expect from someone who has achieved enormous success in a primary field, Bridges seems to care more for how his artwork is handled and hung than he does about being widely known as a photographer as well as actor. He paid for the prints and framing for this show, but Lincoln told me she and her assistant had to pick them up in Santa Barbara and drive the cargo van across the country nonstop, air-conditioning blasting, as part of the deal. Prints of the images (but none of the ceramics) are for sale at prices from $1,200 to $6,500.
Though the photos are of film sets and personalities, they are not merely the record of one actor’s view between takes. A viewer to the gallery show cannot help but look for the path, the connection, between the two acts, in hopes of finding some insight about creativity and personality. This connection is not immediately evident, as the photos are not congruent with the films and stand alone with their own tone, feel, and viewpoint. The photos look very natural and real, not Hollywood, but in their careful composition show something more—grit, experience, something like loneliness; something personal, mythic and American.
“Jeff Bridges: Pictures” runs until January 21.