Defying Vertigo to Capture Aerials From an Ultralight Plane

Magali Chesnel suffers from vertigo; she also loves taking pictures from very high heights. The former hasn’t precluded the latter. In 2016, she was bicycling through the colorful salt marshes in the Camargue region of her native France when she saw a flyer advertising a 45-minute ride in a two-seat ultralight airplane—a hang-glider-like craft that has become increasingly popular over the past few decades. Overcoming her trepidation, Chesnel signed up for a flight, and took along her camera. Once aloft, she was surprised to find herself entirely absorbed while trying to photograph the spectacular landscapes below her.

“I can’t explain it, but I really felt like I was in my own world,” she says. “I felt safe, I felt good. But put me on a glass bridge and I wouldn’t be able to walk.”

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From above, Chesnel discovered, the seaside landscapes of southern France look like abstract paintings, with vibrant bands of color bleeding into each other. They reminded her of canvases by the mid-century American artist Mark Rothko. Some marshes were pink or orange, thanks to the proliferation of an algae called Dunaliella salina. Depending on their levels of salinization and types of algae, other marshes were green, golden yellow, or brown. “I like pushing the boundary between paintings and photographs,” says Chesnel, who trained as a painter and only recently transitioned into photography.
She began posting the images online and submitting them to photo contests, winning awards from National Geographic, The Independent Photographer, and All About Photo magazine. In 2018 Chesnel was attending Les Rencontres d’Arles, a major French photography festival, when she was involved in a car crash. She spent the next year unable to walk, undergoing operation after operation on her spine. While temporarily grounded, she purchased a drone to continue taking aerial photos.

When she finally regained the ability to walk late last year, she discovered that her favorite ultralight airplane pilot had retired. She tried flying with someone else, but the experience was a disappointment. “You have to find a pilot who understands what you want, and who knows the area they’re flying above,” she explains. Although she appreciates the flexibility of drones, she said they don’t compare to the experience of actually soaring above the earth.

“With drones you can take great pictures, but with ultralight airplanes you also have this amazing experience,” she says. “When I’m up in the air, I feel absolutely at peace with myself. Those are the best moments of my life.”

That feeling of peace is almost palpable in her aerial photographs, which possess a Zen-like calm. Chesnel hopes that viewers of the images will be temporarily lifted out of their everyday concerns and given a fresh outlook on the world. (Her work is featured in the public Fence exhibition, currently on view in Houston, Atlanta, and Sarasota.) “From the ground you may see something that doesn’t look glamorous at all, but from above it becomes beautiful,” she says.

When it comes to vertigo, it seems, it’s all about perspective.

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