CHICAGO -- In keeping with Millennium Park's ambitious name, the first exhibition at the behind-schedule and over-budget downtown showpiece features nothing less than the whole round and beautiful Earth.
''Earth from Above,'' a selection of 120 four-by-six-foot images from French aerial photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand's book of the same name, will be shown in the park's ice skating rink through Sept. 15.
''We felt that this would be the perfect monumental exhibition to be the first for Millennium Park,'' said Valentine Judge, director of marketing for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.
Mayor Richard M. Daley originally proclaimed that Millennium Park, a 24-acre site once filled with rail yards and parking lots, would be open by 2000, but the project grew increasingly ambitious almost from its inception in 1996.
It now includes plans for an ornately curving titanium-steel band shell by architect Frank Gehry, a monumental sculpture and a 1,500-seat theater. Its price tag has grown from the original $150 million to the current estimate of $370 million.
Most of the park is scheduled for completion in 2004. The ice rink is the only facility yet open to the public.
The exhibition originated in Paris in May 2000 and since has been seen in 15 countries, but the Chicago exhibit is the first in the United States.
''I heard about it 18 months ago from a friend who was in France at the time, and I went to see it myself last June,'' Judge said.
''In Paris, the pictures were simply hung on a fence in the Luxembourg Gardens, but once we negotiated for a show in Chicago, we thought that a site-specific setting would be a better idea.''
In Chicago, the pictures are being exhibited on 120 specially constructed steel easels arranged in six rows between Michigan Avenue and the park's ice-skating rink. The easels in the front row are the lowest and the closest to horizontal. Those in succeeding rows are higher and more nearly vertical.
The arrangement makes it possible to get an overview of the entire exhibition from Michigan Avenue.
For a closer view, people may walk in the spaces between the ranks of easels and examine the photographs individually.
The photographs will be lighted from dusk until dawn. Electricity for the lighting comes from 120 solar panels installed on the roof of a skating rink building.
The panels were provided by Exelon Corp., which underwrote the entire $500,000 cost of the exhibition.
Arthus-Bertrand, who takes his pictures from helicopters, ultralight planes and hot-air balloons, as well as from conventional aircraft, has annotated each of his photographs with the scene's latitude and longitude, to the minute.
''That's so that 50 or 100 years from now, someone can go back to that exact location, take another picture and see if the earth's surface has changed for the better or worse,'' Judge said.
Change and fragility are recurrent themes in the photographs, which are culled from the more than 100,000 Arthus-Bertrand has taken since he first became involved in aerial photography about 1990.
He devotes as much compositional effort to recording the debris patterns left by a hurricane or fleeting camel tracks in a wind-swept desert as he does to something seemingly permanent, such as Stonehenge.
The one constant among the photographs is that they are all taken from above.
It might be from thousands of feet above, in the case of a Pacific atoll or an Icelandic volcano, or it could be from only a few feet above, as in a shot of smiling upturned faces at an African market day.
Arthus-Bertrand, 56, learned to appreciate that view from above while he was living in Kenya several decades ago. The former manager of a nature reserve in France, Arthus-Bertrand moved with his wife, Anne, to Kenya in 1976 to study lion behavior. To earn a living while the couple researched their book about lions, he worked as a hot-air balloon pilot.
The change in perspective brought a change in occupation. When Arthus-Bertrand returned to France, he devoted himself exclusively to aerial photography. And since 1995 he has used his photography to document the state of the planet and its ecosystems, often under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Because the Chicago Park District has its own harsh ecosystem, with blistering summer temperatures, clouds of vehicle exhaust and flocks of poorly behaved pigeons, the photographs on display here are covered with a special laminate for protection.
''They will deteriorate, though, it's bound to happen,'' Judge said. ''And when the exhibition is over, they will be destroyed. It sort of fits with the theme of fragility, doesn't it?''
Admission is free, and the exhibition will be open seven days a week until the park closing at 11 p.m.
A small gift shop will sell copies of Arthus-Bertrand's book, ''Earth from Above,'' which was simultaneously published in 11 languages in 1999. The revised edition, out this month, features updated text and photographs, including a surprisingly serene view of the post-Sept. 11 World Trade Center site.
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