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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Arctic To The Max

Florian Schulz paints a diverse and lively picture of the landscape and its wildlife in a new book that’s accompanying an IMAX film

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Thick-billed murres rest on a pool of meltwater that has formed on top of the sea ice, Chukchi Sea, Alaska.

Wind blowing across a glacier front picks up snow and ice crystals that are illuminated by the setting sun, Svalbard, Norway.
The Arctic is known for its giant peaks, icy glaciers and raw unrivaled beauty that few ever get to experience in person. The limited access has a lot to do with why it's such a popular place for photographers. Call to mind the first image that pops in your head when the Arctic is mentioned and some combination of polar bears, ice and snow-packed peaks is probably part of it. And while that image is the cover shot of a new book by Florian Schulz called To The Arctic, you don't have to turn very many pages to discover that it isn't the only view Schulz is taking.

Spending just a week or two anywhere makes it difficult to really deliver a full account of what that place is like. This is especially true of the Arctic, and it's part of the reason why that iconic shot of a polar bear roaming over a white frozen tundra is how many of us view an environment that can be as colorful, diverse and alive as any other out there.

Europe's largest ice field, the Austfonna ice cap, provides a maze of ice floes where a mother polar bear and her cubs can rest, Svalbard, Norway.
A large flock of birds flies north against a bright blue sky to nest. Thousands of caribou cross a huge bright green field lined by blue mountains. A snowy owl drenched in golden light sits on its remaining clutch to warm a chick that has already hatched. These scenes embody what life in the Arctic looks like as much as those captivating polar bears do, and Schulz, who has spent most of the last few years documenting the region, goes to great lengths to deliver a definitive visual account of the land and its wildlife throughout the year.

"I wanted to create something that gives people a broader vision of this place," he explains. "People tend to think it's this wasteland or this white nothingness, but it's much more than just this frozen place. The number of seals, polar bears with cubs, bird species, migratory caribou and other wildlife surprises people who haven't spent much time there."

While there are a handful of hot spots, it's a relatively low number because of how remote the region is, and that means photographers who do go there tend to visit the same places and get the same shots. But Schulz, who's no stranger to the field as he spends eight to 10 months a year working away from home, had time and access on his side. Over the last six years, he has spent a total of 15 months in the Arctic. He has traveled more than 2,500 miles on snow machines, hundreds more with traditional Inuit guides and their sled dogs, and logged more than 100 hours shooting from airplanes.

Musk ox bulls walk through a blizzard toward the setting sun, northwestern Alaska.
The work was all part of Schulz's ongoing B2B (Baja to Beaufort) conservation project, which emphasizes the importance of protecting natural corridors in the West to preserve habitats of endangered species. But his work took a slight turn when he crossed paths with an IMAX film crew that was doing its own documentary on the region. Director Greg MacGillivray, a prolific IMAX filmmaker, and his crew were filming a project on caribou when Schulz hooked up with them. He went on some expeditions with the crew as they were filming in places that he had already photographed from the air. The partnership continued to MacGillivray's next project, a documentary about a polar bear mother and her two young cubs traveling across the pack ice on the Barents Sea off the coast of Svalbard, Norway, with plans for Schulz to create a companion book to the film.

While the film follows the polar bear family as it hunts, plays and sleeps on the ice throughout the course of one week, the book is meant as a way of introducing other animals into the narrative. The images offer a window into what their lives are like over all four seasons and shows why they're so uniquely suited for surviving the Arctic environment. To do this, Schulz photographed by land, sea and air. Working alongside a film crew suited his style well because he prefers to capture wildlife in a way that shows their connection to the surrounding landscape, and that was essentially the central purpose of the film.


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