Book review – Paul Nicklen, ‘Polar Obsession’

Once in a while every photographer finds himself in this nasty situation of lacking inspiration. Just as authors can suffer from writer’s block, photographers can fall into a creative hole, the mental equivalent of a sticky shutter. Sitting inside, one fiddles around with the camera and yearns to go out and shoot, but there is just nothing enticing to be found. The best medication for this tricky situation is inspiration, and while in the age of the internet we have millions of images available at our fingertips all the time, there is nothing like a physical book to leaf through. If we spend hundreds (sometimes thousands) of euros, pounds and dollars a year into bodies, lenses, tripods and other gear, we may as well invest a couple dozen on a good book. Thus I was particularly delighted when last Christmas I found one under the Christmas tree – Polar Obsession by Paul Nicklen (National Geographic, €50/£35/$50, 240 pages, 150 colour photographs).

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I first heard of Paul Nicklen when the story of his remarkable encounter with a Leopard seal made the rounds in late 2009. You can watch a very entertaining account of his story on Youtube, but in short, he went to Antarctica to photograph leopard seals (the continent’s second largest predator, right after the orca) and ended up having one try to force-feed him penguins for days. From that point on, and after having checked out his portfolio, Nicklen became my personal wildlife photography hero. Years later I was sitting in a Landrover being driven up a winding road to a tea plantation in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, talking to a young American couple ,when we realised we were all very much into photography. At some point I mentioned the leopard seal story, when the guy smirked. “Yeah, you mean Paul?” Turns out Paul Nicklen’s partner is Mexican wildlife photographer Christina Mittermeier, and I was just talking to his son. The world is small …

Anyway, back on topic. The book opens with a couple of pages in which Nicklen recounts his childhood in the small Inuit community of Kimmirut, and the resulting deep connection he has with the Arctic world.

“Whenever the barometer fell sharply, indicating a major storm, my body buzzed with anticipation of the intense snows. Storms always seemed dramatic, a bit scary, and – most of all – beautiful. Even at a young age I reveled in the approach of severe weather, fascinated with the ever-changing light and conditions. When a blizzard hit, I put on my warmest clothing and went into the hills near our house, where I lay in a snowbank and let the strong winds blow the drifting snow over me.”

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It is fascinating to read about a childhood so very different from most in the rest of the world, a childhood devoid of television and cartoons and instead filled with adventures among caribou and polar bears, under the Northern lights. And it is simultaneously baffling and jealousy inducing how much freedom he and his brother enjoyed as young children:

“After years of getting around on foot, I was given some serious mobility when my father bought Aaron and me our own snowmobile. I was ten years old and had overcome my fear of Qalupalik. […] When I was cold or hungry after being outside for too long, I did what any Inuit boy was taught to do. I entered into any home I chose (knocking was considered disrespectful in our community; everyone shared unconditionally), sat down on the floor next to a seal or caribou carcass, ate my fill of raw meat, and then headed back into the elements.”

Nicklen then continues with his university education as a marine biologist, the realisation that photography is his real calling, and his attempts to break into the world of wildlife photography. And then we are getting into the images. The book consists of two major sections – ‘Arctic’ and ‘Antarctic’. Both are further subdivided into individual chapters usually focusing on a certain area and species. The bit on Svalbard is dominated by images of polar bears, the one on South Georgia features mostly penguins and elephant seals, and of course there is the famous encounter with the female leopard seal in Antarctica. Each chapter is preceded by two or three pages of introduction, containing some information about the species and its habitat, and an account of how Nicklen covered the assignment, complete with stories of sinking zodiacs, breaking through sea ice and racing around on snowmobiles.

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These reveal that he is not only an extraordinarily talented and accomplished photographer, but also a gifted writer, managing to immediately grab one’s attention and drawing the reader into the polar world he so admires.

Needless to say, the quality of the images shown is excellent across the board. And while all of them are great, the ones of polar bears (e.g. the one of the female bear and its cubs and water’s edge, shown above) and the leopard seal really take the cake. Nicklen has a particular fondness of wide-angle lenses, trying to get as close to his wild subjects as responsibly possible, and at one point remarks that if he has to reach for one of his telephoto primes, he just isn’t close enough. He also goes on to elaborate on how much work goes into his images, and what sets professionals apart from amateurs:

“They say that’s the difference between a professional wildlife photographer and an amateur. Amateurs tend to follow the camera around, taking pictures to record a moment, and they often get good results. But these pictures happen at the convenience of the photographer’s schedule and equipment. Professionals, on the other hand, work at the convenience of the conditions. […] At times, I might shoot the same general scene photographed by an amateur, but it will be exactly what I’ve intended to capture, as opposed to the results of good luck. For example, I might decide to shoot animals on a beach under the moon, with the tide half out, and the animals clustered in a certain way.”

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The book finishes off with an extensive interview with the author and finally a long list of Nicklen’s equipment that, unsurprisingly, focuses more on the gear he needs to survive in his hostile work environment than cameras or lenses (and even though you can tell that he shoots Canon, brand names are completely absent from the list).

Overall this is as good a photo book as it gets. The technical quality, including the printing, is very high throughout, the texts fascinating and diverse, the images plentiful and stunning. If Polar Obsession does not inspire you to get out and shoot more, then nothing will. Now I just need to find the closest polar bear …

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