PHOTOGRAPHY / Inside the temple of zoom: Marilyn Bridges hangs from low-flying planes to take aerial pictures of archaeological sites. Jane Richards met her

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The Independent Culture
When she was a child, American photographer Marilyn Bridges suffered from arachnophobia. Her father told her, 'Marilyn, you'll just have to learn about spiders,' and presented her with a pile of books. 'He taught me to go into fear, rather than pull away from it,' she says. So when she grew up and discovered a talent for aerial photography, she didn't let a little thing like fear of flying get in her way. She learnt how to fly her own plane.

Marilyn Bridges' aerial photographs, currently on show at London's Zwemmer Gallery, testify to an irresistible combination of artistry, technical competence and gung-ho tenacity. She studied art, then took up photography in the mid-Seventies. 'It was a revelation,' she says, 'to capture an emotion in an instant. My responses had always changed too rapidly for painting.' She was working on a travel story in Peru when she first looked down from a plane at the gigantic Nazca lines - extensive spirals, runways and animal figures carved into the earth by the Nazca indians. She's been airborne ever since.

Bridges studied photography, archaeology and language at the Rochester Institute of Technology, earning a BA and MFA, then a Guggenheim Fellowship which sent her on her first trip to the Mayan temples in the jungles of Yucatan. Subsequent plane journeys have taken her to the pyramids of Giza, Stonehenge, New York City and Monument Valley. In 1982 she decided to stop putting her life into the hands of strangers and to take up flying lessons: 'One Peruvian pilot actually used his own belt to strap me into my seat to stop me falling out of the open door.' Now she owns her own plane - a Cessna 172 - although she always flies with a qualified co-pilot.

Willowy, blonde and suntanned, Marilyn Bridges is every inch the Hollywood heroine, tailor-made for an Indiana Jones movie. Only she'd be playing Indiana. Determined to get her picture at any cost, she's gone as far as to 'hang out of a plane with an archaeologist holding on to my ankles'.

Twice-married and now involved in a transatlantic relationship with the war photographer, Don McCullin, Bridges was born in New Jersey in 1948 and brought up to believe you can do anything if you want it badly enough.

'I have to fly low to get the intimacy I need, the feeling of being right in there,' she says. 'But to get that close you have to slow the plane down to 'stall speed' which means the plane almost stops flying. There's an alarm that goes off to warn you the plane's about to stall - that you only have a few more miles per hour. And sometimes I leave it extremely late because I'm determined to get my shot . . . '

She interprets the landscape as an artist, but understands the interest her finely detailed studies hold for archaeologists and historians, a detail born of strict discipline: 'I work either very early or late in the day when the light has the exacting quality that brings out the detail and texture in the landscape.'

And while she might spend more time in her New York apartment writing letters, negotiating access and researching her projects than actually suspended in mid-air, she's come a long way since her first harrowing trip over the mass of Yucatan jungle. 'I was in a tiny plane that felt more like a case of fabric than metal,' she remembers. 'We kept losing our way and the pilot insisted I take the controls while he consulted the map.'

It was at that point she knew she had to train up or bail out. 'Now I know what the craft can do,' she says, 'and I know I can take over the controls if I have to.'

Zwemmer, 28 Denmark St, London WC2 (071-379 6248)

(Photographs omitted)