‘Polar Obsession’ captures icy isolation, lacks polarization of climate change politics

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Julian Kilchling/Staff

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Since 2009, National Geographic has not released an exhibition in the Bay Area, but with the talk around climate change becoming more prevalent, Paul Nicklen brings us his newest project, “Polar Obsession.” “Polar Obsession,” on display now at the David Brower Center, features more than 40 photographs of intimate wildlife encounters in the Arctic and Antarctic.

Nicklen’s pieces exhibit the beauty of nature tied to a public awareness campaign. Each striking image is paired with a summary of what the photograph presents and a short sentiment about how the melting of ice is affecting the animal’s survival. “His narrative around all the photographs tells the story of what is actually happening,” explained David Brower Center Executive Director Laurie Rich. “This is the impact of climate change. This is serious.”

The exhibition spans across the Arctic and Antarctic kingdom: penguins, seals, polar bears and narwhals included. A slideshow moving through every item in Nicklen’s collection is the only technological aspect of the showing. The rest is viewed through the eyes of the beholder. Some images stand alone, whereas others are featured in cohesion. This similarly mimics what both Laurie Rich and Dr. Margaret Torn, acclaimed ecologist and biogeochemist, said was the best way to get involved: “Vote and be informed.” They suggest that one vote can make a difference when it comes to protecting the environment, and it takes plenty of these votes to create action. In the gallery, one image sends a message, but many create a movement.

The showing follows the previous excellence and activism the David Brower Center is known for. “David Brower was a pioneer of using art for advocacy’s sake,” Rich said; it is a “home for the environmental movement.” Brower’s son, Ken Brower, both friend and colleague of Nicklen, shared stories about the work behind the photograph. He made it clear that despite there being days of difficult and life-threatening work, those days were the more enjoyable compared to the tiresome anticipation that comes from awaiting the animals to appear. His speech resonated with many viewers, and gave an insider perspective behind the artwork.

These pieces instill sympathy and deep reflection within many visitors. While the images appear to be lighthearted in their beauty, the accompanying sentiments expose the harsh reality the animals live in. Immediately following general facts about polar bears, Nicklen writes, “the sea ice breaks up and melts earlier each spring and freezes later each fall, forcing bears to remain longer on and without food.” An especially strong argument made by Nicklen accompanies an image of a bull walrus: “Humans are the cause and the only hope for a cure.” These harsh truths, integrated with the high definition images, push many viewers toward activism.  

The exhibit’s series on the leopard seal, entitled “Leopard Seals: An Intimate Encounter,” is a standout. It is clear that these images are a rarity, and Nicklen’s up close and personal encounter with a notoriously aggressive animal in the freezing temperatures certainly paid off. While the framing of many other photographs is isolated and beautiful, these pieces show the raw, genuine animal kingdom at work, generating wholehearted, compassionate responses from spectators. “(Nicklen) has been fairly brilliant in appealing to those who don’t consider themselves environmentalists,” Rich said. The captivating images and moving reflections are effectual in using a social platform to bring awareness to a serious issue, something Nicklen has been known for doing, and being successful at, in the past.

While many may believe that being hyper-aware of the dangerous state of our world will make viewers pessimistic and apprehensive, Nicklen’s work effectively does the opposite. His work inspires others to act on an issue they so easily ignore in their daily lives. And his work is not simply about the safety of animals and environmental species, but about the importance of the protection of the planet for all living creatures. His artwork emphasizes that while we are the cause, with activism, awareness and a motivation for change, humans have the power to not only save the lives of thousands of endangered species, but also ourselves.

Paul Nickeln’s “Polar Obsession” exhibit is on display at the David Brower Center until July 21, 2017.

Contact Samantha Banchik at [email protected].

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