Published by the National Geographic Society, Visions of Paradise is a glorious collection of black and white and color photographs taken all over the world based on editor Bronwen Latimer’s question, “where is heaven on Earth?”
The 88 participants submitted snapshots of the assignment that not only cover the obvious natural beauty of untarnished landscapes, such as Frans Lanting’s India 2001 shot of the Western Ghats, but, as Latimer explains, paradise can also be defined as “a moment in time that is lost forever,” which explains why the book opens with Christopher Anderson’s Cuba 2003, a simple image of a woman floating in a pool. It’s a bit of paradise that many people have access to, just floating along alone with your thoughts, a pleasant reminder that paradise can be both a place and a state of mind.
The photos feature persons, places, and things, both familiar and unrecognizable. They are accompanied by text that offers some explanation and insight from the photographers, which is needed at times to help decipher the images. The snaking arteries that make up the grand image of “mudflat remains of the Colorado River Delta near the Sea of Cortez” in Annie Griffiths Bels’s Mexico 1997 would surely have befuddled many a reader who wouldn’t have the opportunity to experience them from the same overhead vantage point.
While it doesn’t detract from any of the shots, some pictures don’t clearly exhibit their connotation of the word “paradise.” Chris Johns’ Botswana 1996 is an out-of-focus photo of “an elephant matriarch clash[ing] with an intruder [elephant] near the Chobe River in Chobe National Park” and the tension of the moment seems to contrast with the theme. Nina Berman’s North Dakota 2008 is a seemingly ordinary shot of streets in winter, but paradise for her is “a space that transports me beyond the physical…and carries me to a psychological place.”
The book is broken into three sections (Land, Water, Air), which are preceded by essays that talk about the state of the Earth’s resources and the need of mankind to improve its use of them. In support of her position, Linda Kulman states “the Earth doesn’t belong to us; we belong to it,” but the pictures make clear the Earth is moving along just fine on its own regardless of our actions. David Liittschwager’s 2006 15 Drops of Water taken off the coast of the Hawaiian Islands and magnified 22 times reveals an amazing number of creatures unaware of and likely unaffected by the waste in our landfills.
Besides, human involvement isn’t all bad. James Balog’s astounding Easter Island 1986 catches Haley’s Comet passing over the famous statues as it streaks across the star-filled night sky. Robert Clark’s Ohio 1991 reveals the paradise in human ingenuity focused our entertainment with a shot of a wooden roller coaster from Paramount’s King’s Island in Cincinnati, Ohio. One of my favorite shots shows the importance of humans in connection with paradise. Joel Sartore’s Kansas 2000 is of his father holding a six-pound bass he had caught that night as the two men went out that evening while standing in Joel’s grandmother’s backyard. Paradise can be anywhere you and a loved one are.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the 155 collected in Visions of Paradise make it worth at least 155,000 words as it crisscrosses the planet, telling many of its stories as the book turns the reader into a world traveler.