He reduced no less than a million images to just 178 photographs. The life’s work of photographer Paul Nicklen therefore contains only pearls. In his book Born to Ice (teNeues) the acclaimed ocean curator and co-founder of SeaLegacyintensely shows the beauty of the polar regions, as well as the great urgency to protect the area. “When the ice disappears, we lose an entire ecosystem.”
Text: Angelique van Os | Photography: Paul Nicklen
“While I was waiting for a blizzard, the bear suddenly peeked through the window of my little hut in Svallbard, Norway. I opened the window and we stared at each other. She found my camera, and I showed my smile of gratitude for this special moment.” It is one of the many special stories behind the countless images by photographer Paul Nicklen (50) that can be found in the thick coffee table book (344 pages) Born to Ice (teNeues). His strong portraits of antarctic animals and landscapes are not only beautiful to look at, it also shows awareness of the impact of climate change in the polar regions. This applies to both humans and animals. Most of the photographs in this book were commissioned by National Geographic magazine, for which he has recorded 22 narratives so far. In the meantime Nicklen has built up an impressive track record, including five World Press Photography prizes and the Natural History Museum in London proclaimed him a Wildlife Photographer of the Year (2012).
The love for the ice landscape has always been present in the life of Paul Nicklen. The Canadian photographer grew up in a small Inuit settlement, surrounded by ice floes, ice fields and the cold seas of Northern Canada. Baffin Island, Kimmirut, to be precise, was his home base. This is so remote, that only once a year food is supplied by boat. “We didn’t have modern communication equipment. Snow and ice were my sandpit and the Inuit people my teachers. It was through them that I learned to survive. As a child, I already knew that as an adult, I wanted to promote something to protect my habitat. By sharing my work, I hope people realise that if we don’t act in time, in just five to ten years the ice will disappear from the Arctic and we will lose an entire ecosystem. This means that the polar bear will be extinct within 50 to 100 years. For me, there is no better, more charismatic and characteristic, sexier polar species than the polar bear, and that is why this animal is the face of my work,” says Nicklen in TED Talk, Tales of Ice-bound Wonderlands. This explains why, whether in colour or black and white, the many faces of the polar bear are a common thread running through the book. Like the photo The Long Summer on pages 40-41, which looks like a beautiful still life of a mother with two cubs, while their fur stands out in the rocky grey environment without ice. A summer of struggling to survive, looking for sea lions and who stay away from the area because of the heat.
“If we do not intervene in time, the ice will quickly disappear from the polar regions and we will lose an entire ecosystem”.
Cold underwater world
But there’s more. Nicklen shares picturesque landscapes of melting and floating ice floes, impressive melting waterfalls, a maze of broken ice where narwhals (toothed whales) have to find their way and the always cuddly seals and penguins of Antarctica. The photographer travels in Greenland with hunters and their sled dogs, where the hard cold life immediately grabs you. The Canadian also shows the cold underwater world in an artistic way, framed by perfect light. He sometimes seems to be in the middle of it. The photographer, who is also a biologist and experienced diver, does not shy away from extreme and challenging (weather) conditions. According to his own words, he feels compelled to connect the world’s public with the animal species and ecosystems he loves so much. In an interview with The Guardian he says: “If you are 150 meters deep under the ice, you can’t fight to survive there. You have to clear your mind.” He does this by wearing a rebreather, so as not to produce bubbles. He can stay under water for about six hours and subjects himself to the same conditions as those of the animals he captures with his lens.
In addition to his photography, Nicklen and his SeaLegacy foundation are committed to the preservation of the oceans and all life in them. He shares the same synergy as actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio, who wrote the foreword to Born to Ice. After all, the crucial moment is now. DiCaprio writes: “This book invites you to immerse yourself in the magical and wonderful polar world, with a rare intimacy that will embrace and inspire you to protect this precious place on earth.