16 Mar 2010

The Earth from the Air by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Part of my tutor feedback mentioned the need to reference my work to existing photographers and specifically mentioned Yann Arthus-Bertrand's aerial photography as an example of work that I could have mentioned.  I should have realised the need to mention my influences as I have had some of his work on my book shelf for a few years.

Yann was born only 8 years before me in 1946 and began his career in film/photography at the age of 17 when he became a director's assistant.  After a few years he left to help run a wildlife park in the Masai Mara, Kenya and developed his passion for photography, particularly of landscapes and aerial photography from balloons.  His talent took him back to Paris where he had grown up and he became well known as a journalist, wildlife, sport and aerial photographer.  He published many books and was famous for his annual book on the French Open tennis tournament at Rolland Garros. 

In 1991 he started the world's first press agency that specialised in aerial photography.  He was sponsored by UNESCO to study the state of the world through his photography and this lead to a book called 'The Earth from Above'  which sold over 3 million copies in 24 languages.  His knowledge of the problems facing the planet have made him a committed ecologist and he has achieved wide recognition for his efforts to publicise the effects of man on the world.

The book that I have is a collection of 365 photographs, one for each day of the year, taken from the air.  It is a remarkable and fascinatingly catholic set of images that show some of the most stunning views that anyone is likely to see.  Yann has used pattens and lines in the landscape, both natural and man made to create images of great distinction.

In my own way I have been able to take some aerial images but there is a great difference between the environments that we work in.  Shooting from 35,000 ft in the air, through several layers of laminated glass, plastic and metal elements that form the windows of an airliner has a challenge that Yann doesn't face.  He is able to shoot from a slow moving platform at only a few thousand feet, or lower, where atmospheric effects are negligible.  He photographs through an open door or window with nothing to blur or reflect back at him.  He is also able to direct his aircraft or helicopter to a location and repeatedly overfly it from the right angle until he has the shot that he wants.   Although some of my 320 passengers might not mind I'm afraid that the option to circle a beautiful feature isn't really an option for me!

This doesn't stop me from admiring Yann's work.  He has a fantastic eye for balancing an image and creating exciting lines and points that I am in awe of.  An example HERE of a ship carving through an ice flow is, at first glance a rule breaker (as well as an ice breaker).  The ship runs a line straight down the centre of the image but he has used the bottom third line to place it which works well.  As in many of his images he uses symmetry beautifully and the central placing lets the ship become an important part of a patten of white icebergs.  The movement of the ship gives enough dynamic feel to the shot and by using a horizontal format he emphasises the large area of ice it is sailing through.  An image of the same ice filled sea that I took falls down on many levels in comparison...
There is, of course no point of interest in the image, the ice is too far away to become anything but a random patten, the blue cast is an inevitable result of the shooting through 36,000 feet of atmosphere (what do you think makes the sky blue... it works looking down as well as up).  In addition there is a bad distortion in the bottom left part of the image from the poor optical quality of the aircraft windows.  Not all of my aerial images are so poor... this next image is a glacier flowing towards the sea in Greenland.
The lines across the ice create enough interest to form a pleasing shot despite the lack of a point of interest and I have desaturated the image to remove the blue cast.

HERE is another of Yann's beautiful shots of a black volcano in a sea of fantastic green vegetation.  The colours in this image are almost beyond belief and put my efforts below into the amateur class.
 I hope that I don't need to mention the limitations that I must overcome to get good photographs again but a quick look at the orientation and the colour stripes at the bottom of the image should give a clue!

So although I am very limited on opportunities and the environment that I shoot from I still fly with my camera beside me in case a rare chance for a good image comes along...

 The mountains of Afghanistan



 Passing aircraft

 Moon rise

Reading about Yann and looking through his images has taught me to look for the same type of contrasts within the landscapes I fly over.  My aerial work has improved and I often think back to his iconic images when I am trying to compose a view through the aircraft window.  In particular, his use of lines and points is an illustration to us all on how powerful they can be.  

A lovely collection of Yann's photographs can be found HERE.

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