In 1992, a pilot flying over New Caledonia pointed out to the extraordinarily versatile photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand a natural clearing in the Voh mangrove in the shape of a human heart. It quickly became the symbol of the photographer's new project, Earth from Above , which was intended "to raise public awareness of the Earth's beauty in order to better condemn its problems". Not everyone likes Arthus-Bertrand's photographs of the Earth, or even accepts their message. However, "the enthusiasm and emotion they ceaselessly inspire remain unquestioned. There is an intensity and a mystery about them. Such expression testifies to the fact that humanity, in its many different guises, shares a common adventure."
The text of Being a Photographer , from which these quotes are taken, is by Sophie Troubac, translated from the French; the photographs, of course, are by Arthus-Bertrand. Together, the book's words and images offer a character study of the adventurous career of a photographer who broke several barriers when he published Earth from Above in 1999. One them was commercial: the first printing of the book, 120,000 copies, sold out in a mere two weeks; today, more than 2.5 million copies have been sold in a variety of languages. More than a hundred of the book's amazing aerial images were exhibited on the garden railings outside the Luxembourg Museum in Paris, where they attracted some 2 million visitors. Later, the exhibition was installed in 50 of the world's biggest cities, and at least 60 million people are estimated to have viewed the images. Photographs in relief have even been included for the blind and partially sighted.
This book does not attempt to duplicate Earth from Above , but it does include many of the best aerial images, as well as some of the photographer's earlier African work and his unusually personal portraits.
In addition, there is a remarkable DVD disc directed by Emilio Pacull, who has been an assistant to the directors Costa-Gavras, Roberto Rossellini and Francois Truffaut; Pacull first came across Arthus-Bertrand's portraits when he saw the outdoor exhibition in Paris in 2000. The DVD alone is almost worth the price of the book (but before buying, you may want to check that the disc is playable on the Pal system). I found the film exciting, but at times repellent in its overly self-promotional approach.
Arthus-Bertrand's career began in Kenya in 1979, where he followed a pride of lions over a three-year period. Organising balloon trips for tourists, he became fascinated with aerial photography. But over the next 20 years he photographed for travel publications on many ground-based events - such as the Paris-Dakar Rally, tennis at Roland-Garros, Paris agricultural shows - and the French people as a whole as part of a project for L'Express . His portraits of the French include breeders with their animals, President Francois Mitterrand, porn stars, plumbers, policemen and bakers. The aim, says Arthus-Bertrand, was "to consign everyone to the same level, and bring out the distinctions in each individual".
Photographically, Arthus-Bertrand does not harbour illusions; rather, he is shaped by them. Purists argue that this is a major flaw, but he somehow manages to extract something unique from his human subjects. It is almost as if he has gouged his fingers into their flesh and then smeared their soul on his film. His human portraits are almost frighteningly revealing, in a way quite different from the dazzling geometry of Earth From Above .
During this period, the 1980s, photography experienced great change. The leading agencies went through a crisis from which they may never fully recover, as many famous names abandoned agencies. Colour established itself over mono images; adventure and travel magazines were established; and photographers, spurred on by writers and publishers, reported on major world developments throughout the world, even in the most remote and reclusive countries. Arthus-Bertrand explains: "It provided us with an existence. All the photographers of my generation owe these publications a great deal. They gave our work a platform and strengthened our images."
Through Arthus-Bertrand's own commentaries, his photographs, his notebooks and the biographical DVD documentary, Being a Photographer tells us how a determined and passionate man took advantage of the new opportunities in photography. It does not put forward or recommend a particular path that any young ambitious photographer should take, but it does offer an eye-opening lesson in how creative packaging and merchandising can establish a gifted and hard-working photographer.
Christopher Ondaatje is a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the author of books of exploration and travel illustrated with his own photographs, the latest of which is Woolf in Ceylon .
Yann Arthus-Bertrand: Being a Photographer
Author - Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Sophie Troubac
Publisher - Abrams
Pages - 239
Price - £24.95
ISBN - 0 8109 5616 0