The Earth From Above

At first I found The Earth from Above exhibition somewhat surreal – as even ordinary things look surreal when you’ve been sleep deprived and have biologically exchanged night for day and day for night. But this exhibition (which had been coordinated with the Earth Summit), seemed to appear out of nowhere, springing up in all its grandeur from the otherwise barren garden at the Science Museum where I had accidentally ended up. Of course it might have been surreal even if I hadn’t just travelled halfway round the world. For what is seen as ‘real’ is what we’re used to. And though I had just flown across America, I still wasn’t used to ‘seeing’ from above. In a commercial jetliner you tend not to see much at all – you’re either too high or your vision is occluded by the clouds. And even when you do see something extraordinary like the undulating coastline of California, it’s like a passing dream, an apparition viewed through the tiniest of portholes.

But seeing a photo taken fifty or so meters from the ground, you have the chance to focus on the idea that ordinary objects are no longer mundane from this outlook. Adjusting your perspective of vision changes your perspective of thought. The ordinary suddenly becomes unique, the mundane becomes exceptional.

The vastness and complexity of the imagery on exhibit there in that reconstructed garden was so striking I found myself wondering about the man who took the pictures and directed this project which appeared so monumental. And then, some weeks later, I saw a documentary. It was about the photographer, Yann Arthus-Bertrand, who seemed to be quite as extraordinary as I had suspected - a rather child-like fellow who was obsessed with flying and seeing things from a unique orientation. Some of the interview took place in a tree house he had built in his own garden.

For The Earth from Above project he had used every manner of airborne vehicle – helicopters, gliders, light planes, balloons - which he had commandeered in the various countries where he was filming. He had assembled a team of assistants committed to this exceptional project, all of whom (the ones who were interviewed, at least) displayed a salutary sense of humour (a necessity, I would think, in a business where order is so delicately balanced with chaos).

Initially, Arthus-Bertrand hadn’t intended to include texts with all his photos. So at first some were exhibited alone, without captions. But after observing the reaction of people who came to the exhibitions, he had found they concentrated more on the imagery when the photos were connected with a written narrative. The words, he decided, gave the pictures added relevance. For these weren’t just any images chosen at random but ones that envisioned his concerns for humanity’s survival in a shrinking world where resources were rapidly depleting through pillage and plunder. And his realisation of the social and political imbalances this had created made him aware of how vital the text was in connecting these ecological issues with his photographs. So he began insisting captions be included in all his exhibitions even when curators sometimes objected – saying they detracted from the aesthetics.

I was impressed by this monumental project, by the team Arthus-Bertrand had built – how well they related and worked together - on the grandeur and the enormity of the events he produced which made people consider things they hadn’t thought about before. (Or if they had thought about them, hadn’t visualised the consequences, for the consequences go so far beyond one’s passing reflections.) He had created a spectacle and the spectacle was enhanced by the enormous size of the imagery and the fact that the photographs were displayed outdoors which made them accessible to passers-by who wouldn’t have gone into the museum to see them but were drawn by the immensity of scale and the curiosity of having the display on the street, not boxed up inside the institution.

Thinking about this project, the man, his adventure and the organisation around it, I became even more fascinated. For, as a life’s work, it ranks amongst the most interesting and effective I’ve come across in recent years. Reading his short biography (which I found on his website, I discovered he didn’t start out as a photographer but as head of a nature reserve in France. He later moved to Kenya to study animals in their natural habitat. While he was in Africa he took his first balloon trip and suddenly his vision shifted. Returning to France – now in his thirties – he decided to become a photojournalist.

Arthus-Bertrand comes across as a man of enormous energy and vitality - someone who gained a singular vision and was able to pursue it with boldness and determination. But more than anything, I think he’s been particularly effective in tapping into a form that seems right for the moment, coupled with a way of exhibiting his work that draws people in from very diverse arenas. On his website there is a listing of his current exhibitions – all outdoor events – which include Russia, the Middle East, America and Europe.

The Earth from Above reminds me of the photographs which resulted from the first voyages to the moon, when we saw our world from the perspective of someone looking back at it from space. This image of the Earth as just another planet in the solar system in a curious way emphasised our fragility. For it made us realise we were just one amongst billions floating around in the vastness of the universe. It was a unique perspective, one of those seminal images that compel us to refocus our vision and to shift our outlook.

Similarly, The Earth from Above has a sense of speciality and wonder that forces a different way of seeing. And since Arthus-Bertrand has combined his images with an educational text that has been well researched and documented, the event becomes the best sort of political art - something that could serve as a model for others who might well study his technique. I don’t mean a photographer need go around hiring aeroplanes, but to find one’s own special perspective that enables the viewer to concentrate on a subject because the image demands to be seen in a certain way. Coupling that with a textual statement which gives political meaning yet doesn’t detract from the aesthetics is not easily done, but, as Arthus-Bertrand has demonstrated, it is possible and when it works it can be enormously powerful. What he has shown is that art and politics can be combined without sacrificing aesthetics and without resorting to tiresome clichés that turn art into the most demeaning propaganda.

13 September 2002