Ecology, a science scarcely a century old, aims to give its practitioners an approach to understanding how whole natural systems--for example, watersheds, deserts, and estuaries--work. Few books translate this aim as well as Earth from Above, a stunning collection of photographs that affords its viewers a window into the world's workings. It is something of a commonplace, for instance, that the large-scale logging now being visited on the world's rainforests is causing untold damage to tropical ecosystems. In French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand's hands, this problem is translated from arid fact to alarming image, giving immediate meaning to the statistics that underlie today's environmental headlines; his photographs of the ruins of rural Madagascar, where forests are being cleared at a rate of 1,500 square kilometers (580 square miles) annually, are a sad case in point.
Arthus-Bertrand, working with the support of UNESCO, has wandered the globe to gather this collection of more than 200 photographs, presented in a folio format. The images are uniformly striking, whether of stalagmite-like fans of algae spreading into the Mediterranean Sea, farmers working their fields in northern India, or destroyed Iraqi tanks littering the deserts of Kuwait. The accompanying text, captions, and short essays by some of France's leading scientists and social critics lend specific depth to the images, which will cheer few readers--but that will shock, and educate, and, with luck, inspire closer attention to the world around us. --Gregory McNamee
--This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
From Scientific American
To many people over the past five years, preparing for the millennium meant surveying restaurants, hotels, parties, then trying to get a reservation and (more challenging) maybe a baby-sitter. To Yann Arthus-Bertrand it meant surveying the entire world and trying to get a sense of it. During the five years, he overflew and photographed 75 countries, shooting out the open door of a helicopter. The result is Earth from Above (Terre Vue du Ciel in the original French edition), at 424 pages and 11 by 15 inches almost more of a coffee table than a coffee-table book. It is weighty with thoughts and concerns about the millennium, with insightful observations about far-flung places and above all with 170 large color photographs, many of them stunning.
The book is divided into 11 sections, each anchored by a thematic essay. In each essay two foldouts contain thumbnail-size reproductions of the preceding and following images, so the reader can locate the image on a map and read the detailed captions without having to flip back and forth to an index. This is a clever way to inform about an image without distracting from it.
The most consistently recurring topic in the essays and images is our troubled and in many ways dysfunctional relationship with nature. Several images are of natural disasters, not just aftermaths of tornadoes and floods but also those waiting to happen. The view along a stretch of the San Andreas Fault is chilling. Most unsettling are the disastrous conditions of our own making. The text tells us that 19 countries suffer from serious drought and that between 1.6 billion and 1.8 billion people do not have access to potable water. A photograph shows us the perfect, white, prostrate "silhouette" of a tree that has been felled and burned to ash in northern Ivory Coast.
The distinction between natural spectacles and man-made landscapes is a relatively recent one that arose with the burgeoning scale of our manipulation of the environment. In one of the best essays, French geographer and archaeologist Pierre Gentelle writes, "We take comfort in nature, forgetting that at one time we feared it." Humans were cowed by nature in earlier times, but now it is almost an object of pity. The urbanized majority doesn't really want to live in nature or by any means to be affected by it; we simply want it to be there for aesthetics, or for visits. Gentelle takes the view that nature roped off in reserves is no longer authentic or untamed but rather more of a stage set.
The natural spectacles that Arthus-Bertrand sought and selected take implicit exception to Gentelle's rule. There is nothing either comforting or false about the nature presented in the images of the toothy karst formations of the Tsingy of Bemaraha in Madagascar or the gannet colony on Iceland's Eldney Island. Aesthetic, yes, but inseparable from awesome, and our capacity still to be awestruck by nature is essential to our survival, because it prevents us from arrogance, from the obliviousness to the environment that leads us toward oblivion. Some of the most exquisite shots are of inaccessible, inhospitable World Heritage sites; we may never get to see most of them, but we need to know they exist.
Many of the best images are actually of man-made patterns, be they fields of bright carpets in Marrakech or swirling agricultural fields in the interfluve between the Uruguay and Paraná rivers in Argentina. Although our touch turns everything to sand or ash in so many places, some of the photographs evince how approaches to agriculture can cleave to topography and to the demands of extreme conditions.
The photographs are wonderful. The spacious format of course enhances their impact. Arthus-Bertrand clearly loves the long shadows of late afternoon (as in the caravan of dromedaries below); in some images large blocks of shadow accentuate what is lit, the way well-placed pauses brighten music. He uses the beauty of the images to great effect with disturbing subjects, because it fascinates and makes them even more terrible. An immense plague of locusts makes a Seurat painting of the landscape below it. What first strikes the eye as huge splashes of color turns out in one case to be destitute people picking through a garbage dump in Mexico City, in another the teetering poverty of a hillside favela above Rio de Janeiro. Pleasingly abstract patterns prove to be the aimless crush of burned-out tanks in Iraq after Desert Storm or the awful symmetry of a B-52 parking lot.
Words and Images
Marrying the visual and the textual in a book like this is very difficult, and in most cases the two parts seem less integrated than tacked together. Few photographers attempt the text, and only a very few (such as Loren McIntyre) can do justice to their own images. To be fair, on the scale of the millennium, who on earth would be equal to the task?
The essays, written by editors of the annual L'état du monde, are data-intensive and relentlessly macro as they tackle such topics as the origins of culture, the evolution of cities, population growth, climate change and sustainable development. They are well written and thought-provoking, and the translations are virtually seamless, but juxtaposed with the intimacy, poetry and passion of the images they can seem bland and detached, victims of millennial ennui.
Moreover, they are pretty dismal, the hope expressed sounding hollow among all the discouraging trends they describe. An example is the evolution (or devolution) of cities, where the cited trends of overexpansion, contamination, the growth of edge cities and literal decentralization point nowhere but downhill, despite the author's optimism about a new dynamic. Some of the recommendations are too sweeping to have any impact: take action, eliminate inequalities, do more research and so on.
The book is reinforced by the photo captions, apparently the work of the photographer and his field team. They are substantial, and many are small gems that convey both detail and larger lessons. Most are well researched, although in the caption accompanying the image of logs being floated down the Amazon, I would dispute the assertion that Brazil's principal economic asset is timber. This implies a mercifully unrealistic efficiency in deforesting the nation, and at present Brazil's status as the world's seventh largest economy owes very little to timber.
Finding much fault with the photographs is neither necessary nor possible. A bit of repetition reflects Arthus-Bertrand's fascination with agricultural landscapes. Some of the more familiar subjects (Nazca, Inishmore, Stonehenge) are less than captivating. In a few, people on the ground squint up at the helicopter and break the spell that lets us believe we are not intruding.
In most instances, however, the "whirlybird's-eye view" taken by Arthus-Bertrand is effective. It is high enough to see patterns but not so high as to render the subjects completely abstract. The book satisfies a need at this moment to step away from--and above--our circumstances to understand them better. From this perspective, we are presented with a spectrum of environments, lives, harmonies and dissonances, a tableau that is exquisite, ghastly, and sometimes both. The last photograph is a dusty blur of children near Korhogo, Ivory Coast, mobbing the helicopter and mugging for the camera. At the end, it is strange to be on solid ground--we have been taken on quite a journey.
Douglas C. Daly is curator of Amazonian botany at the New York Botanical Garden in Bronx, N.Y.
--This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
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