By Jane Richards
PHOTOGRAPHY / Talking pictures: Bridges and Byrne: Jeff Bridges' (right) enthusiasm for photography was an unexpected spin-off from a re-make of the film King Kong; David Byrne's (left) portfolio is, in part, a by-product of his insomniac musings on hotel furniture. Jane Richards talked to the actor and the songwriter about their extra-curricular work
I've thought about directing,' says the actor Jeff Bridges, 'I'm drawn to it and repelled by it at the same time. I know the work and time it takes. I mean, I get exhausted by what I do, but directing would be 10 times worse.'
Looking at Bridge's photographs of Peter Bogdanovich directing Texasville in 1989, you get some idea of what he means. These black-and- white, panoramic close-ups are action-packed. And somewhere in the middle of it all is Bogdanovich, trying to keep it all together. That's what 'Photographs by Jeff Bridges' at the Zelda Cheatle Gallery is all about. These 50 black-and- white images taken from, among others, Fearless, American Heart, The Fisher King, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Texasville and Tucker: The Man and His Dreams are a heart-felt testament to the horrors and joys of film-making.
Bridges took his first photograph on the set of the King Kong remake in 1976: 'I was playing a scientist who always had a camera with him,' he says, 'and I began to use the camera as a means to prepare for the role.' His wife gave him a Widelux - a camera that produces a narrow elongated image, not unlike the movie screen - and he's stuck with it ever since: 'It's usually used for panoramic views,' he says, 'but I like to get as close as I can to the subject I'm shooting.' These pictures are compelling close-ups of the movie-making process: here is Bridges' stuntman for Fearless, precarious at the top of a New York skyscraper ('Gil Combs making me look good'), Karen Allen knitting a sweater by the side of a road, between takes for Starman and his father, Lloyd on his 80th birthday, about to leap from a balcony during a scene from Hot Shots] Part Deux.
Bridges is by no means the first celebrity to try his hand at photography. The actors Diane Keaton and Dennis Hopper have both been there before and Edinburgh's Stills Gallery is, even now, showing a series of colour photos by David Byrne, better known as frontman of Talking Heads. 'Anyone', as Byrne says, 'can pick up a camera and take a picture' - and the result is an attitude on the photographic circuit to big name newcomers which lies somewhere between cautious welcome and outright hostility. For David Brittain, editor of Creative Camera, Bridges' images have 'all the appeal of family group pictures - their warmth obviously reflects his character', but Francis Hodgson, the director of Zwemmer Gallery, is less than enthusiastic: 'they're just interesting moments, not nearly as focused, as a series, as the Polaroid pictures taken a few years ago by Diane Keaton.' Byrne's photographs, on the other hand, are 'quite good. At this stage he's still being singled out because of his name, but he's beginning to show signs of being an interesting photographer, and' - a very telling aside - 'he's clearly literate in photographic criticism.'
Byrne has been taking photographs since the early 1970s. 'I was afraid to exhibit for a long time. I thought people might give me a show because of my name - or slag me off for the same reason. It's good to see that photography publications are picking it up on its own merits and not trying to compare it to my music.' True, in its way - but it is precisely the habits of thought which made Talking Heads so distinctive which endear him to the art world. His view is oblique, his eye attuned to 'the strange and unappreciated'. Consider 'Summa Scientiae Mundi' (all the knowledge in the world): a series of portraits of battered books with plaintively optimistic titles (You can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth). 'I wasn't sure what it was about when I started doing it,' he says. 'Now I think that I must have chosen them because books are the most absurd things to photograph.'
Quite so. The relationship between books and their covers (their appearance and their worth) is famously problematic - and the photographer's chief anxiety is how to express, through a purely representational form, those truths which are not self-evident. Hence, perhaps, Byrne's series of 'Sacred Objects', (a child's shoe, a molar, a broken knife and a human placenta, all lovingly presented) - and a study of, among other apparently banal objects, light-fittings observed in hotel rooms. 'I seem to have been searching for the sacred . . . By considered placement and lighting, these innocent items have been given, by their owners, creators and caretakers, a tiny magical aura, a power beyond their humble origins.' The absence of figures is, he says, partly down to shyness, but in any case 'when there are pictures without people you can somehow get more of an idea about what people are about. I realise I'm anthropomorphising a lot of these objects anyway. A lot of them are probably self-portraits.
'I'm not always trying to break boundaries or create something new. Often it's just dissatisfaction with what's around at the time. If something I want to experience isn't being made then I go out and try it myself. But I'm not consciously setting out to say 'OK, we're gonna be forerunners here. Let's be avant-garde.' ' But, while Byrne's use of studio lighting is stylish, and the printing of his work immaculate, it seems telling that technique as such is of relatively little interest: 'I tried using black-and-white a couple of years ago - but I couldn't get the hang of it,' he says unapologetically. This is art less concerned with aesthetic pleasure or simple story-telling than with the idea of intelligent perception. 'My present picture-taking began as a mindless activity,' he says, 'but in retrospect there seems to have been a direction, a point to it.'
As a maker of more immediately accessible images, it's easy to take Bridges at face value when he plays down his seriousness: 'It's just something I do to relax between takes,' he says. 'Some knit, I take photographs.' But it's not just a question of pointing the camera and shooting. Bridges demonstrates a not-inconsiderable mastery of the Widelux (as David Brittain points out, 'it's a very difficult camera to use. If he was just a snapper he would use a compact'). And his enjoyment of film-making extends beyond affection for other actors and directors into a pronounced sense of visual style: 'Each film has its own look,' he points out, 'and it's not just about the lighting, design and period effects - it's just as much about the atmosphere on set, the relationships between the crew members. And I am interested in the kind of lighting going on on a movie set,' says Bridges. 'The level of light used on film sets is very low these days so I have to use very fast film. And because the Widelux is normally used for panoramic views, there's no focus; I have to play around for ages sometimes to get the right exposure.'
Bridges is taking fewer pictures these days; he took only one or two on the set of his latest film Blown Away. It's tempting to think that he was uninspired by the film itself, but if that was the case he's not letting on: 'For a while I was photographing everything' he says. 'But I guess I feel that most of my pictures don't hold much interest for the general public. Unless they recognise the stars, it doesn't mean a lot.' Now, he wouldn't be trying to talk us out of seeing the show, would he?