“The airplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars
Imagine life as Leonardo da Vinci: you want to know everything. The land, the sky, how things work, how things within invisible spheres exist, how to make brand new things so others will see as you see. See differently. See even as a bird would. The vantage point Leonardo created for many of his cartographic works allowed the viewer to experience what Leonardo believed to exist from above, an interconnected world of surface and space. Imagine him with a camera in hand, flying above the earth’s surface in one of his machines, capturing the peaks and shadows, charting our interaction and modulation of the face of the earth.
It would take a few hundred years and a hot air balloon for this vantage point to be realized in fact: the first aerial photographs were taken in Paris by Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon), the French artist who dared go aloft in 1858 not long after the invention of photography. He was famously mocked for his ventures in aerial photography by fellow artist Honoré Daumier, whose 1863 lithograph “Nadar elevating Photography to Art” depicts a fumbling Nadar, top hat flying in the wind, as he trains his camera over the cityscape of Paris. Needless to say, the art opened up by Nadar benefited greatly from the invention of the airplane. By the early 1900s, artists in planes revealed through photography the world Leonardo could only dream up with his pen.
During the 20th century, we find the advent of aerial photography as art realized through American photographer Marilyn Bridges. She began her sojourn in black-and-white aerial photography in 1976 while a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, when she flew over the Nazca Lines, situated near the Peruvian coast. Her singular orientation to the land is an art form this remarkable woman, who can both fly a plane and take photographs from the air, has continued to explore and expand to the present. Her body of work spans images from around the globe; her website divides them into the categories “Ancient” and “Contemporary,” then further subdivides them by country or continent.
A selection of Bridges’ photographs is currently on view at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in an exhibition that continues the decision of Modern and Contemporary Curator Whitney Tassie to showcase the work of female artists in the museum’s collection. The exhibit offers images from both her ancient and contemporary collections, all Gelatin silver prints, as well as four publications for those interested in diving into the expanse of this photographer’s work. The photographs are stunning to view. Each photograph depicts an interruption with the land, either through agriculture, architecture, or industry. All rely on the photographic process — with rich, silvery whites and deep, inky blacks — to heighten the emotional response to each image. One may have visited and viewed the Empire State Building, or the Castillo at Chichen Itza, but one has never seen them as presented by Bridges’ aerial vantage point and purposeful framing of the environment.
Three images, displayed next to one another, elucidate the mysterious quality of site that Bridges is so adept at capturing. “Tail Feathers, Nazca, Peru, ca. 1979,” one of her earliest images, provides this mystery. Rather than capture the broad expanse of the Nazca Plateau, or the entirety of any number of the thousands of geoglyphs created across this vast plain, Bridges shows us a portion of one geoglyph: feathers drawn on the land, sometime between 500 BCE – 500 CE, atop a mountain ridge that is part of an undulating and steep landscape. Imagine being atop one of the ridges, removing the top layer of rock from your site to create an angular, forceful line where none naturally exists.
This propensity to elucidate abstract markings is also found in the next photograph, “Pockmarks, Pisco Valley, Peru, ca. 1989,” a stunning image that will have the viewer vacillating between admiration of the photograph’s formal construct and awe at the structures created in this seemingly uninhabited and remote section of Peru where humans have interrupted the existing landscape, creating thousands of holes, each approximately 3 feet in diameter, near the Nazca Plateau. The creation and use of these holes remains a mystery. Whether created during the same time as the Nazca lines, or later, during the time of the Inca Empire, the orderly creation of circular markings in a precarious landscape leaves one with more questions than could be answered.
A third image comes from a completely different hemisphere and millennium. “Uffington Horse and Dragon Hill, Oxfordshire, England, 1985” is an aerial shot of the 365-foot-long image of a horse created by the removal of turf to expose the white chalk of the ground below. Rather than framing her image to show us a close-up of this Land art avant la letter, as she does in “Tail Feathers,” Bridges shows us the horse dwarfed in size by the lush, rolling hills of Oxfordshire. While the date of the work’s creation is unclear, it is assumed to have been created during the latter part of the Neolithic era. What is clear is that for at least 2,000 years, people have been updating the “drawing” on a regular basis by removing the encroaching soil that hides the work, constantly re-creating an image its creators could never see, but only imagine.
Which means Leonardo wasn’t that revolutionary after all. His technical skills led to aerial renditions of the Italian landscape, views that at the time could only exist in the imagination; but thousands of years before, the Neolithic peoples of the British Isles could use that same primary skill, the imagination, to create drawings on the surface of the earth that could only be seen by gods or birds. As Bridges’ images so evocatively portray, the Peruvian peoples did something similar half a world away, devoting time and resources to an image that could only be seen from the air. Through intuition, ritual, and/or necessity, people have used the land as canvas since, one could say, the beginning. Certainly for far longer than have our contemporary Land artists.
“Selections from the Photography Collection: Marilyn Bridges, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City, until June 1.
has taught art history at Westminster College since 2006, and has also taught at the University of Utah and Weber State University. Her extensive exploration of Spiral Jetty was published by The University of Utah Press and the Tanner Trust Fund in a book titled “The Spiral Jetty Encyclo: Exploring Robert Smithson’s Earthwork Through Time and Place” in 2017; it won the 15 Bytes Art Book Award in 2018.