Marilyn Bridges Photography

Marilyn Bridges

"I felt as though I was in the presence of a great force, a force that provided unity, that challenged the narrow perspectives of our lives by requiring us to step back enough to view the whole."

Marilyn Bridges

The photographs of Marilyn Bridges function as both art and information, personal expression and documentation. For the past decade, Bridges has combined photography with her passion for flying in order to preserve what she refers to as "the messages of humankind." Written on the earth and covering the reach of time from prehistoric to the present day, these markings and monuments form a complex tapestry of human culture, recording both our sacred and secular lives.

Bridges's work has scientific value, but it is also driven by her personal vision and the exhilaration of flight. As the plane banks, she controls the angle of her approach to retain details while revealing the larger complexity of the landscape. Bridges prefers the light of early morning or late afternoon when the sun creates long and distinctive shadows. These shadows enhance the three-dimensionality of what lies below and their patterns are integrated as defining elements in the photographs.

Many of the earliest earth works photographed by Bridges are impossible to decipher from the ground. By legend, they were not built to be seen by the makers but by their gods. Others are the result of ritualistic acts, meant to forge a connection with the earth. These sites are mysterious places whose purpose and meaning we may never know. Others are monuments to the divinity of kings and the power of nations, built to impress and inspire the earthbound.

In the contemporary rural landscape, Bridges depicts the timeless acts of farming and grazing. Except for the occasional machine, these scenes often appear as we might imagine our ancestors to have lived. When photographing our cities, Bridges gives them a majesty and monumentality that connect them with the architectural achievements of ancient times. However, she also shows us a contemporary landscape filled with the evidence of industrialization. For Bridges, our factories and congested highways do not reflect progress, so much as our dislocated relationship to the earth and environment.

Marilyn Bridges, photographer, pilot and explorer, illuminates the bonds between the mark-makers of 3,000 B.C. and the builders of our modern cities. Ancient or contemporary, Bridges's landscapes serve the dual role of interpreting the power of extraordinary sites and creating visual records that may prove to be the only means of preserving these sites against the eroding elements of time and neglect.

Bridges's work itself is about time, both geological and human. Through her photographs she sketches the history of man. Yet, rarely do humans appear in her images. Rather, like an archaeologist, she attempts to define a culture through the traces that remain. Some have great importance while other traces are without significant distinction. Yet, all reflect their creators' worlds and often the achievements of their physical, intellectual and spiritual powers.

Willis Hartshorn,
Director, International Center for Photography
New York City


A Biography

Marilyn Bridges grew up in rural Bergen County near Manhattan. Her mother, an artist, encouraged her to draw and dance. When she was five, her father, a banker in New York and an amateur photographer, gave her a camera and taught her how to use it. She learned that making a good photograph takes concentration, although as a child she never imagined that photography would become her career.

In 1976, Bridges found herself working on an assignment for a travel magazine in Peru. Her curiosity was aroused when she heard about the prehistoric Nazca Lines, enormous geoglyphs depicting zoological figures and geometric shapes etched across the desert. The long trapezoidal figures even inspired the popular fantasy that they had been used as alien landing strips. After a difficult journey to reach Nazca, Bridges found that almost nothing of the famous lines could be seen from the ground. So she decided to hire her first single engine plane.

Her first shock was when the crew removed the door to improve the view. Her second was to realize that only a flimsy seat belt would keep her from falling out. When she objected, the pilot offered his own belt to calm her. “The pilot was showing off,” she said. “Every time he tilted the plane to gauge my reaction, I expected to slip out. At the same time what I was seeing was so fantastic. I was constantly moving between fear and excitement. My first thoughts were, my God, I’m really seeing a miracle here. I knew the lines were made for a higher purpose, whatever that was."

Later she discussed the Nazca Lines with the scholars who had studied them. Some thought that the ancient inhabitants of the region had made the lines to be seen by their gods, others believed the lines marked the rising and setting of stars on the horizon, yet others suggested that they were ritual pathways to be followed in ceremonies. "What I liked is that they were still mysterious, with no definitive answer."

Her epiphany over the plains of Nazca changed her life. But her first aerial photos, taken in color, were washed out and nothing like what she had actually seen. When she returned home, Bridges contacted NASA to find someone who could advise her on aerial photography. She learned that black and white film with proper filters would give the best results. So she practiced such aerial photography in the USA for a few months before returning to Nazca to try again. 

She was also determined to make a serious study of photographic technique, so she enrolled in the Rochester Institute of Technology. Her first student project at RIT was to print her Peruvian negatives. According to NY Times critic Vicky Goldberg, “the deep shadows, taut longing, and sense of time standing unnaturally still that mark her work were present in every print. Bridges already had her style.” Cornell Capa, founder of the International Center of Photography, saw them and wrote, “I was overwhelmed by her splendid photographs”. In 1978 Bridges took her Peruvian photographs to the American Museum of Natural History in New York and showed them to Craig Morris, Curator of Anthropology. He immediately arranged for the Museum to show her first exhibition.

The next year, Marilyn Bridges earned her Bachelor's degree at RIT, followed by a Master of Fine Arts in 1981. She won a Guggenheim Fellowship and used it in 1982 to hire a small plane and pilot to fly from upstate New York to the Yucatan. Flying over vast expanses of tropical forest lacking roads or clearings, often through thunderstorms, was an intense experience. The maps they had turned out to be inaccurate. At one point they were low on fuel and lost. Bridges and the pilot both knew that a forced landing in such terrain would be highly undesirable. Although she had never flown a plane, the pilot insisted that she take the controls so he could study the map. “But I don’t know how to fly," she protested. “Just put your hands on the stick and hold it steady”, he replied. “You learn quickly," Marilyn says, "when you know that if you don't it could be the end." The results were worth the extraordinary effort. Vicky Goldberg wrote that the “photographs from Yucatan picture a forlorn and bewildering grandeur. The great ruins and stepped platforms abruptly punctuate jungle that seems merely to be biding its time before devouring all signs of history.”

After that experience, Bridges decided to take flying lessons. She got a pilot’s license, and even bought her own Cessna. She still prefers to use a co-pilot while photographing so she can focus all her attention on the shots, but she knows how to use the aircraft as a tool.

Marilyn Bridges received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1984 to photograph prehistoric sites in Britain and Brittany. Her first book, Markings: Sacred Landscapes from the Air, was published in 1986 and met with critical acclaim. It features her photographs of Nazca, Mayan sites, American landscapes, and ancient Britain and Brittany.

In 1988 she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship for research in Peru. When she decided to photograph the ruins of Machu Picchu in the Andes, she found that the only available aircraft was a cargo plane. Because of the high altitude, both the pilot and co-pilot used oxygen masks, but Bridges could not do that and take photographs. She lay flat on the floor clutching her camera in the whistling wind over the edge of the open rear cargo door while an archaeologist held her ankles to keep her from sliding out. The resulting images were astonishing. Many of her Peruvian photographs were published in her 1991 book Planet Peru: An Aerial Journey Through a Timeless Land.

Bridges usually takes aerial photographs in the early morning or late afternoon to capture the sculptural effects of the long shadows. But when she first flew in Egypt in 1984 she was only allowed to take a few photographs of the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx in the glaring midday sun. These nonetheless turned out remarkably well. She returned to Egypt in 1992 and 1993 and spent several months to secure all the permits needed to carry out an extensive photographic journey over ancient sites along the Nile. The results appeared in 1996 in her groundbreaking book Egypt: Antiquities from Above.

In 1997 Bridges brought out another collection of aerial photographs, This Land is Your Land: Across America by Air. In his introductory essay to the book, William Least Heat-Moon wrote, “Marilyn Bridges is edging deeper into the mystery of earth signs as she moves more and more into social involvement. The terrestrial markings she photographs now seem to carry a message of a threatened culture; the results of her work suggest a civilization in deep disregard of massive and impending consequences . . .”

Bridges received a grant from the French government to make aerial photographs of historical and contemporary sites in the Calais region to document the changing environment in connection with the Channel Tunnel. The results appeared in her 1995 book Vue d’Oisseau. She received a similar grant from the Belgian government to document the landscape of Wallonia from the air, which resulted in the 1999 book Vol au-dessus de la Wallonie. Both collections of photographs have appeared in solo exhibitions in major museums throughout Europe.

In 2004 Bridges began a project of aerial and ground based photography in Turkey. She followed the route taken by Alexander the Great when he began his conquest of the Persian Empire, tracing the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts of Anatolia. This region contains more magnificent Greek and Roman sites than any other part of the world. Its rich history and scenery offered a splendid subject for her aerial exploration. She made three more trips to Turkey, including one to eastern Anatolia.

In 2008-2009 Bridges received grants from the Institute for Aegean Prehistory to photograph ancient sites in Crete. This project brought more than the usual challenges, due to unseasonal rains, a fuel strike, and a sudden decision by the Greek Air Force to ban civilian flights during the period she had planned to work. With a combination of skill and tenacity she overcame all the obstacles and succeeded. While flying over Kavousi Kastro, a Minoan citadel atop a precipitous pinnacle, two rare bearded vultures appeared, resembling the Peruvian condor, with wingspans over eight feet. As the enormous birds circled around in the same airspace, Bridges was both awed by their grandeur and worried that a collision would bring down the helicopter. She continued to concentrate on her work, and obtained pictures of this dramatic archeological site.

Marilyn Bridges’ photographs have been shown in over 300 exhibitions worldwide and her work is collected in over 90 major institutions (Résumé). She has produced eight books of photographs (Prints / Books). She was elected a Fellow of the Explorers Club in 1988, received the Makedonas Kostas Award (Greece) in 1989, the Medal of Arles, Recontres Internationals de la Photographie in 1991 and the prestigious Women of Discovery Award “for Courage and Artistic Excellence” from Wings Trust in 2003.

Steven Soter
Environmental Studies Program
New York University, and
Department of Astrophysics
American Museum of Natural History

Marilyn Bridges portrait

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