Action sports photographer Bo Bridges shoots the Summer X Games
Bo Bridges stands outside his studio on Hermosa Avenue in the late afternoon, his arms wrapped around a 24-inch dirt bike tire. Tossing the tire into the back of his black Land Rover, he sets off north on Hermosa Ave., turning right up 14th Street, where two kids on mountain bikes struggle to make it up the hill, swerving with effort, taking up the width of the street.
Bridges laughs, something he does freely and easily.
“What’s up, guys?” he asks, passing them carefully.
Bridges pulls up to the Hermosa Beach Fire Station and hops out. He is in search of heavy duty bolt cutters to aid him in completing his most recent piece: a canvas print silhouette of a motocross driver flying fifteen feet from the ground, his body inverted and free of the bike all but for his hands.
Twenty minutes later, Bridges and three firemen are hunched over the tire as one of them bears down on the rubber with a metal saw, sending sparks screaming amidst a plume of noxious, black smoke. With the incisions made along the lip of the tire, Bridges starts working his canvas portrait — which he has stapled to a sawed-off table top — into the center of the rubber frame. After a final grunt, the crew step back to examine the work.
“It’s backward,” Bridges deadpans before breaking into a laugh to reveal the joke. “I’ll give you guys props in my next newsletter,” he tells them as he leaves the station.
The next night back at his studio, the piece hangs mounted on a wall amidst an array of similar portraits being admired by socialites who sip Stella and Smart Water. Record label promoters, ESPN radio personalities and stars of the action sports world have coalesced to celebrate the kickoff of the Summer X Games with a man who has for the last thirteen years been one of the event’s leading photographers.
Bridges started shooting action sports in the late ‘90s in Vail, Colorado. He had arrived there 22 years old, a photographer recently graduated from college and uncertain of his future. With a minor in marine biology, an EMT certification and pilot’s license, Bridges was as prepared to be a dive master, a ski paramedic or a bush pilot as he was to start a career behind the camera. He took up work at a photo lab, the only one in the valley at the time, and found a crawl space under the stairwell of a three-bedroom townhouse to live in for $150 a month.
Growing up in Florida the son of an air force pilot, Bridges learned to surf Cocoa Beach before moving to Switzerland, where he chased waves to Spain, Portugal and France. In Vail he estimates he made 200 snowboarding runs a year.
Grueling hours were spent at the lab correcting the mistakes of other photographers who were out on the mountain shooting what was happening. He started taking notes and in short time was making his own submissions to newspapers, magazines, wherever he could.
“Editorial back then was all I was after,” says Bridges. “I wanted to be a photo editor, I wanted to be anything I could be just to get my name in the paper and in the magazines. I was shooting all this ski and snowboard stuff [when] I started getting in all the trade magazines.”
Twin-tipppd skis had just arrived on the market at the time, sparking a movement that would come to be labeled “freeskiing”. Led by Quebecan up-and-comers JF Cusson, JP Auclair, Mike Douglas and a few others who collectively called themselves the New Canadian Air Force, freeskiing took the sport into new territory, and Bridges was right there chronicling the shift.
“All of a sudden twin tips came out [and] it became kinda cool,” said Bridges. “[Skiers] all of sudden could do things snowboarders were doing. I don’t know what happened, but somehow I ended up in the skiing realm.”
Bridges and the New Canadian boys were chasing snow across both hemispheres 200 days out of the year. In 1998 this brought him to the Winter X Games in Crested Butte, Colorado. Competing that year were Tara Dakides, JP Walker, Kelly Clark, and Michael Michalchuk, names which have since become etched in the annals of snowboarding.
“I just wanted to shoot action, but X Games was really the action back then,” Bridges says of his first X Games experience. “That was the only big action-sports-geared [event], something that was geared towards the skateboarding, the snowboarding, the surfing, the BMX – all the sports I grew up on. That was it.”
To gain entry to the Winter games he feigned association with a local daily, a tactic he used frequently, hoping no one would ask too many questions when issuing the press pass.
“Maybe I used a long lens,” he jokes.
Within two years Bridges was shooting ad campaigns for Mountain Dew, a title sponsor of the X Games, the Gravity Games and their own Dew Action Sports Tour. The company provided the full red carpet treatment, he says, and with it came recognition and access.
At the same time he started shooting the Vans Triple Crown surf series in Hawaii, an event he continues to cover every year.
Bridges was the only photographer to capture a complete sequence shot of Carey Hart performing the first ever back flip on a motorcycle at the 2000 Gravity Games. The event was so huge, Bridge’s photo was being slapped on 7-11 cups around the nation.
He was there at the 2004 Summer X Games when Brian Deegan, and then Travis Pastrana, landed the first ever 360 on a motorcycle. (The tire which now frames Bridge’s motocross portrait was a gift from Deegan and the boys of the Metal Mulisha).
In 2006, he captured Pastrana landing the first double backflip – again, on a motorcycle – a feat which brought Pastrana a gold medal at that year’s X Games; and between 2004 and 2009, Bridges was the official photographer of the Dew Action Sports Tour.
Today, with a clientele list including ESPN, Sports Illustrated and Fortune 500 companies, Bridges press pass is waiting for him when he shows up to the games.
Trust and Consequences
The action sports business is about trust and respect, Bridges says: the success he has garnered is due to the trust sponsors place in him and the respect he’s earned from the athletes.
When you’re shooting events like the X Games there are no second chances, he says. If you don’t capture the shot, it’s gone forever. The intimate accuracy of Bridges work comes from the hair-trigger response he’s developed behind the shutter. He recalls shooting the Alpine Ski World Cup:
“You had to be focused and ready. They’d come blind. You could just hear the wind moving as they’d come and you’d just sit and wait. And all of sudden they were on you and you either missed it or you got it. And it was a tight shot, you were always shooting tight back then.”
With action sports today, Bridges says the tricks are so technically difficult that athletes only attempt to fully execute them at competition.
“When it’s all on the line, they lay it all on the line and they go for it,” he says. This can result in serious consequences for the competitors.
Bridge’s friend, BMX rider Steve Murray is now paralyzed below the shoulders due to a failed trick at the 2007 Dew Tour. Bridges was standing at the lip of the ramp in front of Murray when he fell.
In 2009, Jeremy Lusk, a motocross rider and member of the Metal Mulisha, crashed while attempting to land a trick at a competition in Costa Rica. He died at the hospital shortly thereafter.
As Bridges has grown with the movement and becomes closer with its members (BMX rider Simon Tabron is now his brother-in-law), these consequences have resonated more heavily with him.
“It’s freakin’ serious now,” he says. “They don’t bounce up like they used to. They’ve got a lot of broken bones and they’ve got a lot of bolts and nuts holding [them] together now.”
When asked what it is that compels him to stand alongside the competitors and follow them to such utter extremes of rationality and brazenness, Bridges replies with a question.
“When you stand on the edge of a cliff, do you want to jump or are you scared, do you want to pull back?” he asks. “I stand on the edge, I want to jump; I stand at the top of a building, I want to jump.”
It’s his love affair with adrenaline that brought Bridges to the 2003 Gumball 3000 Rally. Hauling ass from San Francisco to Miami in a Yoo-hoo-sponsored Volkswagon Eurovan Jesse James had suped up for him, Bridges pulled first place against competitors including Ryan Dunn and Carey Hart. He also pulled four speeding tickets.
At 22, Bridges loftiest goals were to shoot the X Games, the Vans Triple Crown and Alpine World Cup Skiing. By 24 he had realized all three.
Bridges, now 36, says he will be seeking out “the coolest” perspectives as he shoots this year’s Summer X Games, finding access to adjacent rooftops when he’s not shooting directly from the 11-story Mega Ramp.
“The last thing I’m gonna do is sit in the press/media coral and shoot,” he says. “It’s like the one place I won’t be hanging out.”