Life on Ice
Imagine coming face-to-face with a polar bear in the freezing, remote Arctic wilderness. Now imagine coming face-to-face with that same bear, except you stay calm and are not scared. So it goes for Paul Nicklen, acclaimed Canadian marine biologist and photographer. Nicklen has made his career braving harsh conditions as a photographer for publications such as National Geographic, highlighting the world’s most remote regions and the creatures there imperiled by climate change.
Nicklen spent much of his childhood in a largely Inuit community on Canada’s Baffin Island. His exposure to Inuit culture instilled in him a deep appreciation of the complexity of the Arctic ecosystem. From these ancient peoples, who have thrived in this harsh landscape for thousands of years, he learned basic survival skills such as how to hunt seals, how much time it takes to get frostbite after losing feeling in your toes, and how long it takes to become hypothermic if your core body temperature changes. Nicklen made the transition from scientific data collection to photography when he realized the potential of art to shape people’s sense of connection to places and ecosystems.
To create an impactful photograph, Nicklen aims to create a “marriage of art, science, and conservation.” He strives to show animals as part of their ecosystem, and is known for capturing landscapes and intimate portraits that illuminate the interconnectedness of animal and habitat. His shot of a large polar bear, head turned inquisitively to the side, staring straight into the camera, for instance, offers more than a familiar portrait of a fierce hunter. It is a glimpse of an everyday moment, a pause from the prowl, a quiet assessment of surroundings.
Another aerial photograph captures a pod of narwhals that has just surfaced after feeding. Clouds of warm air, just spouted from their blowholes, hang overhead. The dappled black, white, and gray backs of the narwhals stand in contrast to the darkness of the surrounding frigid water, making them appear suspended in space. And yet, once the viewer pulls her gaze away from the marine mammals and takes in the rest of the frame, which shows a landscape of partially melted ice floes and the forming mosaic of waterways, the narwhals blend in seamlessly. The entire composition serves as a striking reminder of how embedded these animals are in the greater web of the marine Arctic ecosystem.
By showcasing the beauty of ordinary moments like these, Nicklen helps illustrate the nuances of life in the polar regions, forging a connection between viewer, animal, and the landscapes each depends on. The sharp, stunning quality of his images offers a window into this icy world that few of us will ever visit, yet must strive to understand if we hope to protect it.
—Erin Banks Rusby
Paul Nicklen is a marine biologist and photographer raised in Baffin Island, Canada. His work has been exhibited at venues around the US, including the David Brower Center in Berkeley, California. You can view more of his work at www.paulnicklen.com