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

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.

A polar bear cub inspects its own reflection at the edge of an ice floe, Barents Sea, Norway.

"The work we did together was ideal because they needed to be out on the ice to follow this particular female and her cubs, and I needed to be out there, too," Schulz says, "so the filming and photography went hand in hand. It turned out to be an incredible opportunity for us both. I was able to observe and document how the bears behaved really closely, and that led to some really intimate shots of the female polar bear drifting on the ice, interacting with her cubs and escaping from males going after her to mate."

The polar bear portraits are captivating because Schulz is in such close range over an extended period of time. On one day, the polar bear mother walked within 20 feet of the boat, laid down with her cubs and went to sleep. Afterwards, when it was nursing time, the crew could hear the youngsters "humming" as their mother fed them. On another day, the family made a mad dash, leaping from one pack of ice to the next as they tried to get away from an approaching male. Since seals, the bears' primary food source, aren't as plentiful as they once were, bear cubs have become an option for hungry males. Schulz got it all on camera. The photographs are so full of emotion, it's nearly impossible for the viewer to come away not feeling connected to one of the most isolated parts of the world.

Challenges are everywhere when working in the Arctic, not the least of which is just getting to some of the locations. Schulz wasn't going to Churchill or any of the other popular spots, so he'd take a jet as far north as possible and transfer to a small prop plane. From there, he would jump between small native communities on planes with as few as 15 people on them. The planes were often the only transportation between these communities, which he'd use as a kind of base for prepping and planning travel routes to even more remote areas. Working with local guides was crucial. When traveling with guides, Schulz often got around on snowmobiles or dog sleds. To shoot from the air, he went out on a World War II Super Cub, a two-seater that allowed him to land and camp on riverbeds and the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

Huge colonies of little auk make nests in the steep, rocky cliffs of Svalbard's fjords, Norway.

With three duffel bags, a camera backpack and another smaller bag, it wasn't easy moving all of his equipment. But he needed a lot of gear because of the variety of images he was planning to take—aerial, underwater, wildlife and landscape. Schulz was determined to stay away from portraying the Arctic as just this empty, frozen tundra.

"That's why I did it over the seasons," he explains. "There are so many different aspects to explore. Getting up into the air gives a sense of scope, the expanse of the wilderness. What I love best is giving the viewer a true sense of place, and that's really hard to do."

The purpose of Schulz's photographs and MacGillivray's film is to remind us of what's at stake up there and around the world if the ice continues to melt at this rate. The thickness of the Arctic ice is nearly half of what it was in 1980, and the region is warming two times faster than the rest of the world.

"This is a tremendous place," says Schulz. "I really fell in love with it. There's so much life, so much diversity, so much to experience. I just hope that the images from the book and the film are able to transport people there and make them think and care about what's at risk."

As part of his Freedom to Roam project, Florian Schulz has dedicated years of his life to North America's most critical wildlife corridor, Yellowstone to Yukon. His first book Yellowstone to Yukon: Freedom to Roam received the Independent Book Publisher Award, Outstanding Books of the Year. See more of his work at


    Great article about a great film. However, there is a correction that I must point out. The author states that the food source (seals) are not as plentiful as they once were which has resulted in males taking cubs as a food source. It is true that a male will eat a cub if given the chance, however it has nothing to do with the number of seals.

    With the passing of the marine mammal protection act in the US and the awareness and outcry about seal hunting, the seal population is more plentiful than ever. It is the melting of the Arctic ice that is the problem. The bears use the frozen sea as a highway to get to their food. But when the ice melts, the road is broken and the bears cannot swim forever. The ice is melting sooner and freezing later. The bears are eating each other because they simply cannot get to the seals to eat them.

    If you want to look at the hard science check out Polar Bear International, they have great research that shows the levels of the sea ice and the changes over the last several years. Global warming is real, people, we have to start making changes today. If we don’t, these bears will be something of our past. They are our lions, our koala, our elephant. What are we doing to save them?

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