October, 2015 Edition

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The Man Behind the Lens

Talking about photography with Jackson Bridges

At the Arizona/Utah border, just outside of Page, Arizona, there are two opposing road signs welcoming the curious and welcoming the adventure from both directions.
The Utah sign is the size of a highway billboard, like the ones informing you how many miles away the next McDonald’s is. It’s a landscape shot of saturated Navajo Sandstone formations on either side of Lake Powell’s watercolor-brush strokes. “Welcome to Utah: Life Elevated.”
The Arizona sign is about the size of a flag you might see in an Arizona history classroom. The sign itself is actually the Arizona flag: a copper star blasting the sky as it sets behind the Colorado River. It’s an abstract rendition of the sunset you’re looking for. “Arizona: The Grand Canyon State Welcomes You.”
During my daily commute, I cross the border in between the two signs. RVs, sports-car rentals from Nevada, tour busses – you name it – pull over at the signs for a photo.
Time and time again I see the same shot being composed under the “Welcome to Utah” sign. A guy balances his camera on the hood of his rental car, pushes the timer, and runs over to his girlfriend who is waiting under the sign. They make the same gestures a magician and his assistant would make at the end of some illusion as the timer counts down and captures a fraction of a second in the young lovers’ lives.
The small “Welcome to Arizona” sign gets lost under the immense shadow of Utah’s sign, but every now and again that photo, too, ends up in the digital scrapbook of fellow travelers.
I passed the border on my way back to Page after work one evening and watched an Asian couple racing the timer in Utah… there is an hour time difference between the two states after all, so that shot can be a tricky one.
The sun was low and warm as it peeked through the clouds and painted Lake Powell and the sandstone with pockets of light and shadow. As I got closer and closer to Glen Canyon Dam, I couldn’t help but notice all of the cars that had pulled over to capture the layers of nature I was seeing in my rearview mirror. And being a photographer myself, it makes me happy to bear witness to others being taken over by the show they see through their camera’s viewfinder.
I have heard many people, regardless of religion, mention that what they see in this area is proof of a higher power, or even a lack thereof. And whether it’s an act of a creator or merely the chemistry from a big bang, the landscape here is spiritual for all.
As I approached the dam, tourists lined each side of the bridge, poking their cameras through the chain-link fence and taking shots of the concrete plug that holds back an aggravated Colorado River.
There are three enormous electrical towers on the riverside of the bridge being fed by the hydroelectric turbines down below. My photography mentor and good friend Jackson Bridges once showed me how the massive towers look like huge Doberman Pinschers with cropped and pointed ears.
And just as I was enjoying the reverie of the time Jackson pointed out the guard dogs to me on the way home from a photo-shoot, the car behind me was honking so violently that it pulled me out of a beautiful daydream of a little old man and his contribution to photography, canyon country and the people of Page.
The wonderful scene of nature and the people enjoying it in my rearview mirror was replaced by a lady in a white car with a rather long face going berserk. One hand was flailing around like a cornered gorilla having an epileptic episode while her other hand was honking away. The only time the honking stopped was when she used both hands to give me the double bird. I was doing 20 mph on the 25-mph stretch along the Glen Canyon Dam Bridge.
Anyone in that much of a hurry certainly missed what everyone else was trying to capture with a camera. Nor would that type of person appreciate it anyway.
Once past the dam, she zipped around me: rage in her eyeballs, all teeth showing under inaudible screams of anger, and yes, the double bird. I smiled and waved at the psychotic temper-tantrum of the dumb as she passed, only to see her get stuck behind a rental RV who was the unfortunate one next in line. And all I could think was, “If only I could have shown her the sun shining down on Jackson’s Dobermans.”
Jackson and Linda Bridges moved to Page 20 years ago while he was in his 50s. He’s a bit of a local legend here in Page. You saw his photography when you were having breakfast at the Ranch House Grille, or while getting an allergy prescription filled at the pharmacist because the Russian Thistle and Rabbit Brush have a kung-fu grip on your sinuses. He’s been a photographer longer than he’s been shaving.
Shortly after moving to Page, Jackson began working as a photography tour guide. While in his early 70s, Jackson took a couple from Alaska to Antelope Slot Canyon on a tour he’d done hundreds of times before. As the three of them walked through the canyon’s opening and into one of the area’s most photographed places, the man from Alaska asked if he could ask Jackson a personal question.
“Do you have Parkinson’s Disease, Jackson?” the man asked.
“No,” replied Jackson.
The man from Alaska was a neurologist and told Jackson he had some signs and symptoms of Parkinson’s such as walking flat-footed with an ever-so-slight shuffle and hunching over just barely. Most of us would see it and say to ourselves, “Looks like a guy in his 70s who has spent too much time hiking around the desert instead of playing Canasta at the retirement home. Good for him.”
However, after a checkup, it was confirmed that Jackson did indeed have Parkinson’s. The cocktail of meds his doctors put him on allowed Jackson to still drive and setup shop at the Friday Night Art Walk in front of the Powell Museum in Page where he would talk photography to anybody with a camera. And even if you didn’t buy one of his photographs, you could still negotiate on the price for directions on how to get to the photograph that caught your eye. And Jackson’s price for such information is always the same - some organic small talk that usually starts with photography techniques and sometimes ends up an hour later discussing the next episode of “Dancing with the Stars.”
And that’s how I met Jackson Bridges. My wife and I were checking out the art walk while a 74-year-old man was pulling out photo after photo from a green milk crate – each one more amazing than the one before. Jackson and I just clicked like two old souls that hadn’t seen each other since they shot out the neighbor’s window with slingshots when they were kids. Jackson is twice my age, but at times he’s much younger than me. Still curious.
The last time I hung out with Jackson was after the Fourth of July. Linda called me and said I needed to come see Jackson. I could hear the tears swelling in her eyes over the phone.
“You really need to come see Jackson. I took him out to shoot the fireworks on the Fourth and he had a hard time figuring out the settings on his camera. Blake, photography is his life. He’s lost a lot of weight, too,” Linda said.
That next day my wife and I went over to their house for dinner. We brought six gallons of French vanilla ice cream, and Linda cooked a homemade chicken dinner. Jackson had lost some weight, quite a bit actually, but it was the same old Jackson. There would be moments when he would forget where his train of thought was going, but he had no problem scrolling through the images in his camera of the hummingbirds he shot earlier.
During dinner,

I looked at his pictures on the wall, and for the first time I didn’t see The Wave or White Pockets. What I saw was the soul of a man who has become so close to me.

Jackson shared a story that really made me contemplate coincidence. Jackson said that Linda had taken him to the Navajo Sandstone formations just west of the dam so he could take some photos – he’s not driving anymore.
Jackson said he heard a lady in the distance with a thick German accent yelling, “It’s you.” The German lady was holding the Summer 2015 Gateway Magazine and waving it over her head as she approached the Bridges.
Jackson and I put together a story for that issue of a little place he calls “The Mini Wave.” And from 50 meters away, the German tourist recognized Jackson from that story.
That next day, Jackson took the German lady and her husband to “The Mini Wave” from the story and gave them a private photo tour for two hours. He taught them the basics like shooting in the early morning or while the sun is setting. Never miss out on a cloudy day. Composition is everything. Read books on art and subscribe to “Outdoor Photography.” But the most important part in photography is that there has to be a fire burning in your heart. The real dirty little secret behind photography is the person behind the lens.
“They were ‘point-and-shooters,’” Jackson said about the German couple.
So after my run-in with the wingnut at the dam, I texted Linda and asked her if I could drop by. She responded, “You bet. I don’t know if he’s up for it or not, but the last two days he’s been really great, almost like the old Jack again. So take your chances and come on by.”
When I got there, Jackson was all smiles and sharper than the hundreds of pictures hanging on the walls of his house. He was fired up, young and just like the same guy who has taken me out on countless photo shoots.
“Hey, man. I want to take you to this place I call ‘The Little Cut.’ It’s just past Horseshoe Bend, right before the Little Cut,” he said as he showed me some images he recently took there.
“Let’s do it,” I said. “I’ll pick you up Sunday after work at 1:30 p.m.”
I was anticipating Sunday for the rest of the week, and when I knocked on his door that Sunday, he greeted me the way he always does: “Hey, stranger, come on in, man.”
A friend from Jackson’s church was on the couch, which he introduced me to.
“Where’s Linda?” I asked.
“We took her to the emergency room this morning,” Jackson’s friend said.
Jackson was obviously affected from the stress.
“Linda said that we have to still make it out to ‘The Little Cut’ and she’ll be upset with us both if we don’t go,” Jackson said.
“Ok, but lets stop by the ER before we head out,” I replied.
We walked up to the reception desk at the hospital and Jackson asked to see his wife. The hospital employee called the nursing staff and said, “Mr. Bridges and their son are here to see Linda.”
Laughing, I said, “That guy thinks I’m your son.”
“We can pull it off,” he said.
When Jackson and I got to Linda’s room at the ER, the blue sheet was pulled closed while nurses were doing their thing. Father Micale from the church the Bridges attend every Sunday was also there, and his presence made me wonder just how heavy this was.
The nurses let us in and Jackson bent over and kissed Linda on the forehead. Her vital signs flashing across the monitor were that of a teenager, however, she obviously wasn’t feeling good. Father Micale said that the doctors think it might be a reaction to her new medications and they are running tests. He bowed his head and prayed out loud for her recovery.
The nurses came in and got Linda ready for some images of her brain.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Linda said. “Now you guys go out there and take some pictures.”
Jackson’s “Little Cut” is a few miles past Horseshoe Bend as you’re leaving Page. It’s where road workers blasted through the Navajo Sandstone for Highway 89. As we approached Horseshoe Bend, Jackson said, “Whoa, man. Turn in here. Look at that. They look like ants.”
The parking lot at Horseshoe Bend was packed. Literally hundreds of people were hiking up and over the sand dune leading to the most iconic photograph in the area. They did indeed look like ants pouring out of an anthill. Jackson rolled down the window and snapped some shots of all the people.
“I call this a ‘drive-by-shooting’. I remember coming out here when there wasn’t anybody around. Now look at it. Lets get out of here while we can,” he said.
“Horseshoe Bend is a must, but so is The Wave, Studhorse Point, White Pocket as well as where we are going now,” Jackson said. “Ok, turn off here and park behind that bush so nobody sees us.”
We made a right turn onto a dirt road just before the cut. I had driven by this area hundreds of times and never noticed the dirt road. Jackson put on his little red camera backpack and grabbed the walking stick he made from a yucca stalk. We went through a cattle gate and Jackson shuffled with slow and deliberate steps over to a small little juniper tree growing right out of the sandstone.
“I love this little tree,” he said. Jackson sat down on a rock near the tree and just stared off into the distance. He pointed where the Paria River merged into the Colorado River. Triangular sandstone formations called “Teepees” broke up the landscape.
The sun was getting low and the shadows long. The two of us just sat there. We only took a few photos unlike the hundreds we would have in the past.
Jackson’s phone plays a hip, kind of techno beat when his wife calls, and her phone call pulled us both out of the trance-like moment we were having under his little juniper tree.
The hospital was admitting Linda for the night to run some more tests, and I could tell Jackson was wiped out from everything.
“Ready to go, Son?” Jackson said.
“Sure thing, Pops,” I replied.
As we approached Horseshoe Bend on the way back to town, Jackson said, “Can we drive through the parking lot again?”
But this time we parked. Jackson sat on a rock and zoomed in on the ant trail of people scrambling in a hurry to beat the light.
That next morning, I picked up Jackson at his house and took him out to breakfast at the Ranch House Grille before heading over to check on Linda. Tourists were powering up with a hearty meal before heading out for their adventure. I could see the tourists stare at Jackson’s photos all over the walls, and they had no idea that the man responsible for those images was a couple tables over.
He ordered chicken fried steak, two eggs, hash browns, English muffin and a glass of orange juice.
As he sipped his glass of orange juice, Jackson looked at me and said, “Parkinson’s is just another way to die. Simple. The minute you’re born, you start to die. But when I see images of space and galaxies, you know what I see? That’s the inside of God. And what a gift. I don’t want to sound preachy… but…”
His eyes looked left and right, back and forth as if he was trying to find where he was going with his idea.
“I can’t remember. So what,” he said and then lifted his orange juice up in the air as if he was toasting his Parkinson’s. We both laughed hysterically.
I fought that sensation you get in your throat right before crying. I looked at his pictures on the wall, and for the first time I didn’t see The Wave or White Pockets. What I saw was the soul of a man who has become so close to me. Those images are exactly what he saw through the lens of his camera. And in a weird way I realized how photography can instantly connect people… even when they are long gone.