Each time Hollywood releases a new movie, a host of publicity images, movie posters and DVD covers also come out. Where do the characters’ photographs come from? Many are shot by Appalachian State University alumnus Jim Bridges ’82.
He’s one of only about 300 movie stills photographers worldwide, and just a handful on the East Coast. He’s shot 78 films, including the Coen brothers’ “Fargo” and “The Hudsucker Proxy,” the New York scenes of “National Treasure” with Nicolas Cage and the upcoming “13” starring Mickey Rourke. His television credits include Lifetime’s “Army Wives.”
It all began with a chance course at Appalachian.
“I wouldn’t be a photographer if it weren’t for Appalachian,” said Bridges, who keeps his home in rural Watauga County so he can trout fish when he’s not on location in New York City or other locales. He didn’t realize he had an interest – let alone a gift – in photography until he took a basic course required for his broadcasting major.
“That lit a spark,” he said of the photography class taught by Jeff Fletcher in the Reich College of Education. “Fletcher was the most amazing instructor. His kind of teaching is what I needed to be inspired. He saw I was self-motivated and so he encouraged me and challenged me.”
Fletcher remembers Bridges as a student who would “go way beyond the typical assignment,” doing work over and over to achieve better results. “He got where he is because he was willing to take a chance,” Fletcher recalled. “He got into the movie business with the same kind of perseverance he showed with his class work.”
After graduation Bridges worked a short time in radio, shooting roll after roll of film in his free time to sharpen his newfound love. He ended up returning to Appalachian for a master’s degree in educational media in order to take more photography classes from Fletcher and other faculty on campus.
He earned his master’s degree in 1985 just as North Carolina’s film industry burgeoned after the success of 1983’s “Firestarter” starring a young Drew Barrymore. At the invitation of his college friend Steve Venetis, Bridges moved to Wilmington and got a job as a sound transfer engineer and dailies projectionist.
Back then, actors didn’t mind having their picture taken off set. “It was an amazing time… I was an in-house person and had free range to the entire film lot. The most amazing people would be hanging out and talking. So I’d take my Olympus point-and-shoot along. One day while we were shooting ‘Blue Velvet,’ director David Lynch suggested I come on set and shoot the actors sometime,” he said.
Bridges recalls the day he nervously approached Dennis Hopper. “’Mind if I take your picture?’ I asked. He said, ‘Sure. Where?’ It never occurred to me he’d go somewhere with me to pose, so I said ‘Why not the truck across the street?’”
Hopper lit a cigarette and played with his pockets while waiting for the young man to set up the shot, not realizing Bridges had already clicked the shutter. “I’ve built my entire career on that picture,” Bridges said.
Bridges has since upgraded equipment and now shoots with a digital Canon. He’s photographed Meryl Streep, Liam Neeson, Matt Damon, Sharon Stone, Sylvester Stalone, Julianne Moore, Gene Hackman, Samuel T. Jackson, Nicole Kidman, Tim Robbins, Steve Martin, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and others. He’s even shot the Muppets.
Bridges’ role on a movie is to shoot actors in their scenes and additional publicity shots, any necessary behind-the-scenes images plus all photography seen in the movie, such as framed family photographs that appear in a character’s home.
Bridges positions himself behind the director and crew during filming, his camera silenced inside an insulated “blimp” box. Most actors don’t notice him at work, except those with exceptional hearing and an intolerance for being disturbed. “Jeff Bridges came over and punched me in the arm once,” he recalled.
A big part of Bridges’ current business is his wife Lora Lynn, who graduated from Appalachian in 1987. She, too, studied photography under Fletcher, who introduced them on a blind date many years after they left the university. Since meeting in 2001, the couple has worked together as a team, with Lora Lynn making contact sheets for the production, as well as editing and printing select images for the producers and actors. She also designed Bridges’ Web site and maintains his portfolio.
“In the end, it was my time at Appalachian that changed my life,” Bridges said. “It provided me with the tools for a living that I love, as well as lifelong friends.”