Travel: Up, up and away

From the plains of Ecuador to the icy deserts of Antarctica, the French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand has trained his lens on some of the most amazing landscapes in the world. Here is a selection of his aerial images

THE FRENCH AERIAL photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand has spent much of the last five years swooping over continents in helicopters. Anyone who cranes to see out of plane windows on lift-off should like his pictures, in which - textures smoothed by distance - rivers become snail tracks, deltas folds of silk, winding tributaries wormcasts. In Mali, groups of mud huts take on the appearance of a termites' nest; in Marrakesh, a man stands among his jewel-coloured carpets like a spider in the middle of a web.

Arthus-Bertrand's UNESCO-backed mission is to "present the state of the planet on the eve of the 21st century from a photographer's point of view". Living in Kenya, earning a crust by taking tourists on hot air balloon excursions, he became interested in aerial photography, and for the last decade has specialised in taking pictures of different countries from the air. He conceived this particular project, "La Terre vue du Ciel" ("Earth from Above"), in 1995, appealing for help - in providing helicopters, transportation and authorisation - from any country which wanted to take part. There is an ecological slant: Arthus-Bertrand plans to create a pictoral library of landscapes against which comparisons can be made in the future. Presumably for convenience's sake, the project has been hitched to the millennium, and discussions are being held in Britain with organisers of the Millennium Experience about exhibiting the pictures in the Dome.

Arthus-Bertrand takes his photographs in the early morn- ing or late afternoon, so that the light and dark contrasts are enhanced and the shadows elongated, lending the photographs a somnolent quality. Animals or people or human structures are used to give a sense of perspective, but often the effect is pleasantly distorting - it is difficult to assess the height at which the pictures have been taken. A solitary white building stands on a tiny rocky island in the Dodecanese, surrounded by a dark blue sea. Again in Greece, a red-capped fisherman paddles his boat through turquoise shallows, and this time the camera is so close that we can see his nets and his buckets and - if we looked hard enough - probably a few leftover olives from his lunch. Sheep scatter like crumbs over red fields and green hills in Turkey: the lens has moved further away again. In Egypt, dates laid out to dry form a patchwork pattern. We can see details: a goat tethered to a tree, fallen coconuts, bowls. Looked at collectively, the pictures convey a sense of motion; individually, the main impression is of stillness - one forgets the helicopter passing above.

So far, 70 countries have participated in ''Earth from Above'' and Arthus- Bertrand aims to photograph a dozen more - including India, Pakistan and Colombia - before the project closes at the end of the year. There has been the odd bureaucratic obstacle. China, for example, in shades of Branson, has yet to grant flying permission. This month, though, while the rest of us are flicking through Thomas Cook brochures and dreaming of summer, Arthus-Bertrand is busy clicking his shutter over the white wastes of Antarctica. Now there's a holiday destination ...

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