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Discovering Earth from a Paris garden
The experience inspired him to become one of the world's foremost aerial photographers whose work has appeared in Paris Match, Le Figaro, Life magazine and National Geographic. He also has published 60 books of aerial photography.
His latest exhibition of aerial photographs, "Earth from Above," has created something of a sensation in Paris, attracting an estimated 2.5 million visitors over the past seven months. The images also are featured in a book by the same name.
But the exhibition is not in one of the city's famous museums. The photographs are displayed on the gates of the Jardin du Luxembourg, one of the largest and most famous parks in Paris, on the city's Left Bank.
The 200 photos in the exhibition are just a few of the thousands Arthus-Bertrand has captured over the past 10 years as part of his ongoing "Earth from Above" project sponsored by UNESCO, Fujifilm, Air France and Corbis, the international photography archive.
The images range from the meticulous nature of drying dates in the Nile Valley, Egypt, to the complacency of sunbathers in a hot spring in Iceland. Arthus-Bertrand has shot 100,000 frames of film and logged more than 3,000 hours of helicopter flights over the past 10 years.
The gray-haired, 54-year-old Parisian talks about his work with a childlike happiness. "It's like flying over a big map of the world," he said. "I'm not an artist. I'm a witness."
The idea of witnessing seems to be the overwhelming theme of his work. Most of the photos in the exhibition capture a moment of life from one of the 82 countries Arthus-Bertrand visited to compile the collection.
Arthus-Bertrand is concerned not only about aesthetics but also about the story behind the people and places in the images. He said it was the combination of what humankind contributes to the planet, not just the Earth's natural wonders, that inspired him to become a photographer in the first place.
"I use my camera to capture a moment of life. It's not only to show war. I'm a journalist," he said.
Every photo has a story
All the images in the exhibition are displayed with accompanying texts. Arthus-Bertrand believes images and text together are the best way to tell a story about a place or an activity. Experts selected by Arthus-Bertrand and his team compile political, social or environmental information about each image.
One image visitors to the park seem drawn to is the ghostly gray and white photo of the abandoned Ukrainian city of Pripiat, whose populace of 50,000 was forced to evacuate after the April 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant.
"It's not a beautiful photo, but a good one," said Marco Boltz, a German student on vacation in Paris. "From a social point of view, it's ugly. But for a photographer, the symmetry of the street and the color and mood are beautiful. The blue and grayish landscape makes you shiver."
Other images include a view of the urban destruction in Turkey after a 1999 earthquake, the business of using old tires to wash clothing in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and the problems of overcrowding and destitution in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
"People have been seen crying at this exhibition," Arthus-Bertrand said. "I get so many letters and e-mails. People want to know my philosophy on life because they think I have seen so much of the world."
One of his favorite images is of the Coral Sea just off the coast of Whitsunday Island, Australia, where a small boat sails leisurely though a whirlwind of blues, greens and whites. The boat is a key element of the photo because of the significance photographic scale has in his work.
As a means of comparison, Arthus-Bertrand's photographs often include a person or man-made features such as a house or village. Some of his photos feature one person standing in a vast natural landscape.
"It's very important for us to see a man in the photo when looking at an image from the sky," he said. "If not, the picture could look like something under a microscope."
All in a day's work
Arthus-Bertrand originally planned "Earth from Above" for museum display, but several Paris locations turned it down because, he said, they were too busy with other projects or because they did not want to display photography.
Finally the photographer had the idea to display his work on the gates of the Jardin du Luxembourg, and asked the French Senate, whose home is the Palais du Luxembourg inside the park, for permission.
Once he had the Senate's consent, Arthus-Bertrand commissioned the wall hangings and lighting system that display the exposition. Entrance is free and the images hang 24 hours a day. In the seven months the exhibition has been on display, there have been no reports of vandalism of the more than 200 photos.
The large images, each with separate overhead lighting fixtures, hang on the black and gold gates of the park. Visitors can purchase prints, postcards and "Earth from Above" books at the exhibition counter in the park and in many stores around Paris.
The exhibition has had no formal advertising but was extended three months until the end of December because of the enormous interest it has received. Most of 2.5 million visitors are not considered regular museum-goers, and Arthus-Bertrand may have discovered a public appetite for outdoor art exhibitions in Paris.
Although Arthus-Bertrand modestly declared, "Anyone can do what I have done," he may be right on one point: "Taking the photos is the easy part."
Rolls of red tape
Money, organization, regulations, equipment, time and weather are all factors that can inhibit Arthus-Bertrand's work.
Working became easier for him and his team of five assistants in 1993 when he launched the "Earth from Above" project in partnership with UNESCO -- the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Other sponsors such as Fujifilm, Corbis and Air France have since signed on.
Because Arthus-Bertrand shoots photos in many countries with restricted air space, he must be certain to obtain the proper flying permits. UNESCO aids the group in this matter, using diplomatic contacts to assure government officials of Arthus-Bertrand's legitimacy as a cultural photographer.
But there are still many details to consider. Some countries require inspection of the film by military personnel. The group once waited three months for film to be cleared. Helicopters are not always available, so the crew must bring its own equipment and surveyors. In the early days, Arthus-Bertrand also tried hang gliding in search of the perfect aerial shot.
Nowadays, Arthus-Bertrand uses only helicopters to shoot his pictures. It is important for him to have good relationships with the members of his team.
"The pilot has to be good," he said. The more the pilot understands what Arthus-Bertrand looks for in an aerial shot, the better the two can work together. Eighty percent of the photographs in the series were discovered from the air, Arthus-Bertrand said.
One of the most popular images in the exhibition that was discovered this way is of a heart-shaped patch of swamp shrubbery in New Caledonia, a French overseas territory in the Pacific.
"The pilot brought me there," Arthus-Bertrand said of the photo, which has been reprinted on postcards, T-shirts and posters.
The team also uses GPS technology to document the location of each photograph so others may revisit the same spot later and see the evolution.
The photographer and his crew plan to continue traveling and shooting next year on scheduled trips to China and Yemen. The exhibition will travel to London, Jerusalem, Beijing, Rome, Montreal and several U.S. cities yet to be determined.
Airborne photographer aims his lens at Earth
Yann Arthus Bertrand
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