Tuesday, Jun. 08, 2004

The Long Shot

Yann Arthus-Bertrand
Yann Arthus-Bertrand is an aesthete with the soul of a moralist. He uses the beauty of the world to beguile you into a photograph in which a larger lesson awaits. His lesson is about the planet in jeopardy. For the past decade the 57-year-old Frenchman has been taking aerial shots over deserts, volcanoes, rain forests and cities. He turns natural formations and highway interchanges into nearly abstract, high-luster photographs — and also into food for thought. If his pictures are beautiful, the realities they point to are not: deforestation, desertification, unbridled development. "Each photograph," he explains, "has something to say about our environment."

Arthus-Bertrand has been spreading his message in a series of best-selling Earth from Above photo books and a traveling outdoor show of nearly 150 4-ft. by 6-ft. prints accompanied by captions that link the images to the environmental issues at stake. Since the show was first mounted in Paris four years ago, it has been seen by millions of people in 53 cities. To find a project of comparable ambition, you have to look back to "The Family of Man," the milestone 1955 museum show that toured the world to illustrate common threads in the human fabric. But that exhibition involved scores of photographers. Arthus-Bertrand spearheads his own effort, though even his most delicate images require something like a paramilitary operation — his team now totals 15 — to handle planning and logistics. Some nations, like Saudi Arabia and China, have yet to give him flyover permission. "One problem with doing aerial photography," he explains dryly, "is that people think you are a spy."