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In ‘Born to Ice,’ iconic photographs of polar animals

  • Author: David James
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: February 16, 2019
  • Published February 16, 2019

Face to Face, Svalbard, Norway Photo © 2018 Paul Nicklen

Born to Ice

Paul Nicklen, teNeues, 344 pages, 2018. $125

Just a few pages into “Born to Ice,” a new coffee table book from the acclaimed Canadian photographer Paul Nicklen, a polar bear peers through the open window of a tiny cabin in Svalbard, Norway. Snow has piled up outside just below the window’s frame. The bear has to hunch down to look in. To the right, a burning oil lamp glows, suggesting that this scene is transpiring far from modern civilization.

It’s the proper conclusion to draw. More than 150 pages of photographs lie ahead before another sign of human habitation is seen. In between are dozens of images in both color and black and white of arctic and subarctic land and seas, and of the wildlife that ranges across both. The scenes range from vast panoramas to facial closeups, unveiling an Arctic that is far from the barren wasteland some would dismiss it as.

Nicklen’s love for the Arctic, as well as for Antarctica, which he also visits in these pages, springs from his childhood spent in a remote village on Baffin Island, which straddles the Arctic Circle. Well known for his work with National Geographic, he’s devoted much of his career to documenting the Earth’s polar regions. In his brief notes that accompany the photographs, he explains, “‘Born to Ice’ is a photographic retrospective of my lifetime spent in the Arctic and 15 years in Antarctica. It is a curation of what I believe are among the most moving images of the millions I have taken over the decades.”

And what a collection. In one photo, found early on, mountains and snow dominate the view, and it takes a moment to spot the polar bear dwarfed by its surroundings and blending in with its matching fur. Even more startlingly white are a pair of beluga whales seen a few pages later. Rendered in black and white, they are contrasted by a black sea all around them.

’Gathering of Unicorns, ’ Lancaster Sound, Nunavut, Canada Photo © 2018 Paul Nicklen. All rights reserved.

Nicklen is a diver who takes many of his pictures underwater, offering his audience an opportunity to see things they would otherwise never witness. He uses this approach to particularly vivid effect in several closeups of a leopard seal in Antarctica that Nicklen says brought him offerings of food when he encountered it. In one especially humorous shot, the seal swims toward him with a penguin in its mouth, like a bird dog proudly bringing a retrieved pheasant.

Nicklen’s eye and lens are drawn toward patterns as well as animals. In one picture, a lone penguin precariously balances on the grooves of an iceberg. In another, two glacial moraines come together like merging superhighways. Melting rivulets atop arctic sea ice meander like streams, except the flow is outward from the center rather than towards each other. A curtain of water spills behind the tail of a whale as it dives beneath the surface near Norway. A crowd of hundreds of penguins gathered tightly together on Salisbury Palin, on South Georgia Island, evokes nothing so much as a densely populated Third World city street.

At least two of the photos here are iconic enough that most readers of this book will have encountered them elsewhere. A mated pair of penguins in facing positions gaze at their chick, who stands between them. With heads bent downward and their necks forming twin curves at the top of the formation, the resultant scene looks like a heart.

An underwater photograph of a swimming polar bear in Lancaster Sound, off of Nunavut, Canada, has also been widely reproduced. Suspended in the blue sea, its reflection floats along the surface above. As Nicklen noted, he has taken millions of photographs in the Arctic, and here the patience and the work pay off with an unforgettable image of an animal rarely seen in its hunting waters.

Born to Ice, Ross Sea, Antarctica Photo © 2018 Paul Nicklen. All rights reserved.

In the short essay that accompanies the Arctic section of this book, Nicklen discusses his decision, in his 20s, to abandon a safe career and take up photography. It wasn’t easy, and he’s frank about the disillusionment he experienced in the early going. But looking back after a quarter century, he knows he’s found his purpose in this world. “I document animal behavior,” he writes, “and try to give wild creatures, especially those with an often undeserved reputation, a voice, an identity.”

Nicklen accomplishes this by presenting these animals in ways that humans can find a natural connection with. A baby harp seal lies on its side in norther Quebec, staring fetchingly into the camera. An enormous walrus surfaces majestically from the sea off of Greenland, its head halfway out of the water, while its tusks go spearing downwards beneath the surface. A gathering of narwhals pops out of an opening in the sea ice, their unicorn tusks raised like the swords of medieval knights, ready to do battle. Penguins blast out of the water, looking as if in full flight, even though they are only embarking on momentary leaps.

The only time humans intervene is in a handful of photographs of Inuit from Greenland, seen here hunting and, in one picture, driving a dog team that is hitched up in the traditional fan formation rather than lined out as more commonly seen in these days of competitive mushing.

This is a book of photography, with only a few words, and thus the underlying reality of melting polar regions is only discussed in the introduction, by actor Leonardo DiCaprio, and in a couple of paragraphs in the short essays by Nicklen. But that vanishing ice is critical to the entire ecosystems that he documents. Phytoplankton grow on the underside of sea ice, and it is the foundation for the entire Antarctic food chain and much of the Arctic’s. Nicklen express hope that humans can reverse course. But if the ice does vanishes, the worlds he photographs will become memories. “Sea ice is like the soil in a garden,” he writes, “without it, nothing grows.”

This expansive and beautiful book shows what will be lost if we don’t preserve what is left.