PARIS – Yaan Arthus-Bertrand has sold more than 3 million copies of his book of photography “Earth From Above.” His latest Paris exhibition featured videos of 5,600 people photographed in 78 countries, and it attracted 150,000 visitors in just one month. And his $16 million movie from 2009, “Home,” has been screened all over the world, including Bangladesh and the headquarters of the United Nations.
But in the United States, Mr. Arthus-Bertrand is a perfect stranger.
This year though Mr. Arthus-Bertrand is determined to convert American audiences to his sentimental vision of the environment. In February, his film — a succession of images of stunning natural beauty from 54 countries — in service of a warning against human excesses — has been shown free at the Village East Cinemas in Manhattan. The no-cost concept has delayed the film’s journey to the United States. “For several years, American movie theaters didn’t want to show it because the movie was free,” Mr. Arthus-Bertrand said in an interview.
“In America things are complicated, and the movie was from another planet,” he said.
Mr. Arthus-Bertrand, 64, is distinctive as well. Viewed by many here as a sort of French Al Gore, one with a white mustache, a more flamboyant style and a similar, if perhaps slightly less articulate, message, he has received some of his country’s highest distinctions, including the Légion d’Honneur, and has had 12 French schools named after him. In 2009 he was appointed a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Environment Program. But unlike many prominent environmental advocates, Mr. Arthus-Bertrand has no scientific background and has never been a politician. And in France, where credibility generally depends on one’s level of training or education, successful careers like his are rare.
In conversation Mr. Arthus-Bertrand comes off more as a thoughtful adventurer than as a French intellectual. His office is a comfy cabin lost in a wood near Paris, and many on his staff are under 40 and wear T-shirts to work. He is inhabited by a restless energy and easily distracted.
“No one is an environmentalist by birth,” he said, “It is only your path, your life, your travels that awaken you.”
Mr. Arthus-Bertrand first found inspiration in a small, solitary experience, when three decades ago he painstakingly observed a family of lions in Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
“The lions taught me photography,” Mr. Arthus-Bertrand said. “They taught me patience and the sense of beauty, a beauty that penetrates you.”
A former actor with no higher education, Mr. Arthus-Bertrand described himself as a “violent child,” attending 15 different schools as a boy. He discovered aerial photography working as a hot-air balloon pilot in Kenya. From the air, he explained, you see the world differently, and borders disappear.
For years he shot photos for the Paris-Dakar rally, Club Med catalogs and various clients in Morocco. In 1992 he stumbled across the notion of “sustainable development” in an article in the newspaper Le Monde, and that serendipitous moment changed his life.
“I didn’t know what it was,” he said, “but started looking into concepts such as fair trade and ozone layer.”
His work on “Earth From Above” made him an environmentalist, he said. Over eight years, he photographed about 160 countries and read dozens of books on environmental issues. Few publications were willing to publish his work at first. He sold prints to pay for his flights and mortgaged his apartment to finance the book.
“Earth From Above” has come to be viewed in France as the bible of aerial photography and has spawned similar books like “Paris From the Air” and “New York From the Air.” For Mr. Arthus-Bertrand, the experience has been “like winning the lottery.”
Mr. Arthus-Bertrand has always favored sensational events to draw people to his cause, even in a country where such exuberance is often viewed with distrust. His photography exhibitions are often held in unexpected places: at the iron gates of the Luxembourg Gardens or on the walls of a public hospital. HOME was shown on a giant screen below the Eiffel Tower, with 25,000 people in attendance.
Throughout his career Mr. Arthus-Bertrand has often insisted on free access to his art, a particularly provocative stance in a country with a long attachment to strict intellectual property rules. He publicly asked people, including film distributors, around the world to show “Home” without charge.
“I told them: ‘I am doing a movie for free, I did my job. Now, do yours,’ ” Mr. Arthus-Bertrand said. (Glenn Close agreed to narrate the English-language version without pay. And the owner of the Village East cinema is exhibiting the film for cost; Mr. Arthus-Bertrand paid the $10,000 rental fee himself.)
The film, which was almost entirely financed by the French retailer PPR (which owns the Gucci Group, among others), is a nonprofit project, he insisted, which depends on the film distributor’s good will.
“It is an extraordinary approach,” said Luc Besson, the French film impresario, at a news conference in 2009. Mr. Besson, who produced “Home,” added, “Our goal is that a maximum of people watch it, in order to tell governments and industrials: Look how many of us are rallied to his cause.”
With the help of major donors like BNP Paribas, the French bank, he started the GoodPlanet foundation, which helps companies to develop eco-friendly initiatives, compensate for carbon emissions and curb greenhouse gases. Most recently the company was granted government help to distribute 20 posters showing pictures of nature and sustainable development programs to 57,000 schools in France. He now intends to develop an equivalent operation in the United States.
Today the revenues from his artistic work — including the copyright of more than 60 photography books, byproducts and exhibitions around the world — have made Mr. Arthus-Bertrand’s appetite for new projects even more insatiable. But his unusual pace and monumental undertakings have grandly served what many people described here as a naïve vision of environmentalism. He has been nicknamed the Care Bear, and a recent article in the French newspaper Libération described him as “a mixture of John Lennon and the Green Giant of vegetable fame.”
For Jean-Michel Frodon, a French movie critic, Yann Arthus-Bertrand is an undisputed celebrity who used his reputation to make “Home,” a “pretty and Pollyanna-ish movie.”
“ ‘Home’ had many viewers but didn’t have much echo,” Mr. Frodon said in an interview.
Mr. Arthus-Bertrand’s personality, activities and his innovative no-cost concept, he explained, have captured more attention than the movie itself. He makes no apologies for his efforts or his methods.
“There is something very utopian about what I do,” he said. “But utopia is nothing more than a truth that the world is not yet ready to hear.” (by: Maia de la Baume, NY TIMES)
The movie HOME: