“There is something special about making a powerful street photo,” says San Francisco-based photographer Jake Ricker. “So many things have to line up just right. You really only have one chance to get it, but when you do, few things are better.”
For the past few years, Ricker has been working on Strange Paradise—a long-term photo series documenting the Golden Gate Bridge. “After I stopped being a SF bike messenger in September 2017, I was looking for something new to photograph that wasn’t in the downtown area. I had been a messenger for almost 10 years, and shot photos every day that I worked. It was the best way to see and capture new things, but it was time to change my backdrop,” he explains. “At the same time, I had been thinking about the hundreds of photos of the Golden Gate Bridge I’d seen, and how they always looked similar—always of the bridge itself, always taken from the same four spots on or around the bridge. I realized I never saw photos of the people from the sidewalk, and I thought that the candid, street style of photography that I shoot would be an interesting way to show a different version of such a photographed place.”
Ricker’s pictures of the bridge are vivid and full of life, and all sorts of scenes unfold against the backdrop of its iconic, red-orange steel. Lovers embrace, tourists gather, and birds soar in front of the lens. Elsewhere, there are difficult moments too: a car in flames; once-meaningful items thrown into the water below; someone lingering on the edge, considering letting go. All of Ricker’s photographs show us glimpses of the people who use the bridge to cross, to look, to think. And each of his photographs captures a unique moment that invites us to wonder what series of happenings were set in motion for each of these events to have culminated here, on the Golden Gate Bridge, at the time this photographer was there to capture it.
“Before I started this project I always just loved the bridge from a distance,” Ricker says. “I’d go there from time to time when friends would visit and, as someone that always has a camera with them, I would think to myself, ‘I wonder what would happen if a photographer came here every day? What photos would they get?’ Ever since I asked myself that question, I’ve been trying to answer it. I’m not sure I’ll ever know, but I think I’ll get as close as anyone possibly can.”
Ricker goes to the bridge almost every day. “In 2020, I only missed about 12 days that entire year,” he recalls. “I’ve gone through phases where I was going 11 hours a day, 7 days a week for a couple months straight. I was doing a whole sunrise to sunset series out there, and would stay for every minute of daylight. Lately I go about 6 days a week for around 6 to 10 hours each day. I just shoot, shoot, shoot, and sort it all out later. As of right now, in late 2022, I haven’t seen a single photo I’ve taken all of this year and all of 2021. Most of the film is developed, but I haven’t had the time to scan anything in. For me, being there is the most important thing, and I’ll see whatever I’m able to capture at some later point.”
A bridge—with all the symbolism that comes with it as a pathway, a suspended moment, a crossing—is a rich setting for storytelling. When Ricker first went to the Golden Gate to see if there was a project he could build on, though, he wasn’t completely sold. He began by going for just a couple of hours a week, thinking he’d make a small series for his website, but as time went on he realized how rich in human experience the subject matter was turning out to be, and so he began turning up there more and more. “At the end of every year since then, I’ve said ‘one more year’ because every year my work continues to get better and better, and any significant body of work actually takes much longer than what most people would imagine,” he says.
“I’m almost five years in right now and I finally feel like I have something. Because the bridge is so iconic—and is literally surrounded by some of the most beautiful places on earth—it really can be paradise. But because the bridge has so many layers to what goes on out there, it is also quite a strange place,” Ricker reflects. “Locals use it as just another way of commuting. Some use it to exercise. Some use it to enjoy their day and go outside with a friend or family member. Some dream of visiting the bridge from some far away country. Some go there to get engaged. Some use it as a backdrop for their wedding and graduation photos. And some use it as a place to end their life. All of those things combined make it a strange paradise.”
Somewhere along the way, the ritual of Strange Paradise transformed into something more than just a photo project for Ricker—it became about transformative action too, and its purpose grew far beyond what he chose to capture. “At this point I’ve probably helped prevent over 60 suicides since I’ve been out walking the bridge,” he says. “None of this was part of the plan, but I just look like a tourist with a camera, so I get an honest version of people when we pass each other, and since I’m there so much, I know what behavior to look out for. As the suicide prevention aspect grew from me being out there with a camera, I just went with it and gave up everything else to be there as much as possible. I believe in this body of work and the significance it might have someday, and I believe in what I’m doing out there on a human level,” he says earnestly.
Ricker has even gone so far as to plan the timeline of his project around the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge’s suicide detterent nets, which are due to be completed in 2023. “Realistically I can’t go forever, so ending my time there shortly after the net is complete feels like it makes the most sense for a natural stopping point,” he says. “I just want people to see what I saw and think about what they can do to help a total stranger in the most unexpected way. What they can do for their neighbor, their neighborhood, their city, their state, their country, or their planet.”
Watching life tick by, day after day, on the Gold Gate Bridge, Ricker has captured thousands upon thousands of images, and of those, there are of course ones that stand out to him more than others. “I have photos of some of the saddest things you can see in this life, as well as some of the happiest,” he says. “I think the bridge exists in extremes and that’s what sets a place like it apart and makes for an interesting place to build a body of work. You can feel it when you are out there.” And ultimately, only a process of regularly returning to the bridge and photographing it over a long period of time could truly visualize those extremes in such a full and felt way.