Mark McDermott

Hidden Heroes: Photographer Bo Bridges enters the Marvel Universe with a groundbreaking —  and in the case of the Hulk, pier-shattering — new collection

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“Pier Pressure” by Bo Bridges

 

by Mark McDermott

The first thing Bo Bridges saw was the Hulk landing on the Hermosa Beach pier. Bridges was looking at the outsized green man, who by most accounts weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of a ton, from inside a wave he’d swam in just north of the pier. The pier was buckling under the Hulk’s weight; all Bridges could see was those two monstrous feet and calves, with aqua green skin nearly matching the color of the wave.

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Thus was born the “Hidden Heroes” series, the first collaboration Marvel Comics has ever done with an artist that creates photo-real artwork, taking superheroes off the pages of comic books and into the real world.

Bridges had been thinking about it the project for four years. He’d grown up a comic book fan, especially Marvel superheroes.

“They are multi-dimensional, and have real-world problems, like the rest of us,” Bridges said.

Bridges has been shooting real-world superheroes, in the form of action sports athletes, for two decades. He’d always been struck at their ability to bend reality, to do things unimaginable to most mere mortals.

“I’ve shot the most difficult tricks in the world, and you kind of have one chance to get the shot,” Bridges said. “And these guys have one chance to land it. If they miss, they get seriously injured, if not die —  we’ve seen it go both directions.”

Like Marvel characters, action sports athletes also tend to have some anti-hero tendencies. They are outsiders, different from conventional society. And like Bridges, many of them grew up with Marvel characters as their own heroes. Bridges mulled the parallels all those years, puzzling at how he could bring these two worlds together through his photography.

At one point, a Marvel vice president, Paul Gitter, came to a show at Bridges’ Manhattan Beach gallery. He loved the photographer’s work and also saw some parallels in his subject matter and Marvel’s.

“We’ve got to do something. I’d love to tie you in with Marvel somehow,” Gitter told Bridges, handing him a business card.

And then, two winters ago, the USA ski team began donning Marvel superhero outfits, eventually competing in them in the Winter Olympics. The sight of Lindsey Vonn flying down the slopes as Captain America jarred something loose in Bridge’s imagination.

“These downhill skiers dressed as Marvel characters in skin-tight outfits —  their bodies were superhero-esque,” Bridges said. “I think that kind of got me going.”  

“The Ruler” by Bo Bridges.

Late one night in his studio, Bridges quietly slipped into superhero mode. He took out his photo of the aquagreen wave north of the Hermosa pier, and boom, suddenly the Hulk appeared. Shortly thereafter, Spider-Man showed up, lazing on a hammock strung between two palm trees overlooking the Manhattan Beach pier. Given Hermosa’s punk history and Manhattan’s fancy casualness, it made sense those two superheroes would find their way to their respective cities.

Marvel officially agreed to a collaboration about a year ago, but it was a top secret project. Bridges could tell no one outside his studio crew and family. He admits that part of his intention, from the outset, was to do something his kids might consider cool —  not an easy trick for a dad to pull off. And as the work commenced his three kids — his daughter, Shea, 7, and sons Tosh, 11, and Kai, 13 — became his consultants.

“With my kids, I got a little feedback, because dads might think they are cool but they don’t always know what’s cool anymore,” Bridges said. 

Bridges possess that rare and most desired quality among artists in that when you see one of his photographs, you know it’s his immediately —  kind of like how B.B. King’s guitar tone is recognizable in the first few notes of a song. From his action photography — he’s shot every X Games since they launched in 1997 —  to his iconic landscapes, Bo Bridges has become a brand. And that brand up until now didn’t include the Hulk, and so this work represented a potentially dangerous departure.

But that problem sort of solved itself. Bridges wasn’t trying to make movie posters. He wanted to make the Marvel characters even more relatable by putting them believably in our world. He had to be understated. The photos needed to retain their artfulness and thus be in keeping with his body of work.

“I’m not going to put some giant Spiderman on my wall,” Bridges said. “It can’t be that in-your-face. But if you can keep your distance, keep it subtle, still make it about beautiful images, and then tie-in the characters…. You have to kind of find them, like ‘Where’s Waldo.’ I feel like we did a good job. You can still be a family man and hang them above your mantel and get away with it —  rather than the image ending up in the garage, or man cave. It’s a nice piece of art, and the superheroes add a little something.”

His gallery director, Vanessa Zippo said Marvel’s brand perfectly coexists with Bridges’.

“I think the reason it feels like such a good match for Bo is that he is so well trained in terms of anticipating the movement of bodies and trajectories and momentum, and the way a person moves, because of his experience in action sports work,” she said. “And that is what has always set him apart — he really knows how to capture that one split second in which somebody is about to break a world record or do a trick nobody has done before. Nobody can do that like Bo…. And so the two brand aligned really well. It’s about being right there at that adrenaline pumping moment and capturing what makes it so exciting. And Marvel lives in that world, too.”

Pretty soon, Antman and Wasp showed up on a local beach —  shot from above, with Bridge’s drone, with a “Where’s Waldo” kind of dizzying puzzle as the heroes are lost among beachgoers and umbrellas. Rocket Racoon was spotted lurking near a skateboarder at the site of the Dominator wreckage in Lunada Bay. The Black Panther, meanwhile, was photographed crouching beneath an airborne motocross rider performing “the Ruler” stunt, in which the bike goes straight up as the rider likewise extends straight up into the sky, holding onto only the bike’s handlebars.

“I’ve got the Black Panther crouched down low in the landing zone…. It’s a fun little tie-in, because the Black Panther kind of rules the land and his airspace,” Bridges said.

“Coastal Living Surfboard” by Bo Bridges

It was unusual, due to the secrecy of the project, for Bridges to work with so little feedback. Finally, last week, the work was unveiled at the X-Games in Minneapolis. The Hulk on the Hermosa Beach pier —  titled “Pier Pressure” — was displayed as a 20 ft. high 10 ft. wide print. Bridges was shocked at the response to all the work — he had long lines of autograph seekers, and it wasn’t just kids.

“Parents were just as excited as their kids,” Bridges said. “It was pretty fun. Everyone has a kid in them, I guess.”

He found it almost disconcerting to find himself treated like a celebrity outside of the South Bay, where his work is already revered. He’s particularly excited because the work has really just begun; he has a 19-month contract with Marvel and hopes to have access to more and more characters. He’d love to bring Deadpool and the Silver Surfer to life. He also hopes to get approval from Marvel to use some heroic athletes as superhero models, and possibly get them in the water.

The work will be on display at his gallery in downtown Manhattan Beach, and on a very limited basis for sale —  the “Hidden Heroes Collection” includes not only prints but also a few board decks and surfboards. On Sept. 22, he plans to host an event at the gallery focused on the new collection.

Bridges has entered the Marvel universe, and the possibilities seem infinite.

“It’s definitely a new avenue for me,” Bridges said. “I haven’t been down this road before, but to collaborate with a company of this scale is kind of blowing my mind.”

For more information, see bobridgesgallery.com or stop by the gallery at 1108 Manhattan Ave. Four large images from the “Hidden Heroes Collection” will arrive at the gallery next week.

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