On the way to publishing his spectacular new book on polar bears, Seattle photographer Steven Kazlowski: • Lived and worked in temperatures...

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On the way to publishing his spectacular new book on polar bears, Seattle photographer Steven Kazlowski:

• Lived and worked in temperatures of 25 degrees below zero.

• Made his home in a station wagon along the Alaska Highway to Prudhoe Bay; washed dishes for a living in a native village; lived below the poverty line for several years.

• Photographed the inside of a polar-bear den (after the polar bears had left for the season).

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• Got slapped on the back by a polar-bear cub hoping he would play tag.

“The Last Polar Bear: Facing the Truth of a Warming World” (Braided River, 208 pp., $39.95) is the culmination of Kazlowski’s driving obsession with the polar bears of northern Alaska. Sometimes obsessions end badly; this one has resulted in a stunning book. It showcases 235 of Kazlowski’s photographs, plus the contributions of several writers who weigh in on the possibility that the “last” polar bears will live out their lives in zoos.

During his years of effort, Kazlowski learned to love the brutal but serene landscape the bears claim as home: “For me photography isn’t about going to the spots everybody else is going to because they’re getting good pictures,” he says. “I’ve always tried to go to these out-of-the-way places where I could find something different. I could be alone with the bears. I could be at peace with the bears.”

Worldwide, the population of polar bears is healthy at about 20,000-25,000 animals, but widespread melting of the polar ice cap has put their habitat in jeopardy. In their hunting mode, polar bears swim great distances to get to pack ice, where they pursue seals and other prey. The greater the distance across the water, the more likely that polar bears will either starve or drown.

The polar bear has been proposed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act — if that designation is granted, it would be the first time global warming has been named as the culprit in species decline, and the first based on predictions and computer modeling. A decision was expected this spring, but last month, the Bush administration said it needed more time to study the matter. A threatened-species designation for the polar bear could affect U.S. oil and gas exploration.

The burning of fossil fuels is widely thought to cause global warming, which in turn is believed to have accelerated the melting of the ice cap — a recent U.S. Geological Survey survey found that unless greenhouse gas emissions are curbed significantly, two thirds of the world’s polar bears could disappear.

Events have lent urgency to Kazlowski’s quest, but traveling and living on Alaska’s North Slope is a pricey proposition. Kazlowski, a high-octane native of Queens, N.Y., got help from friends along the way. A part-owner of Alaska Telecom gave him permission to use the company’s cold-weather huts. A hotel owner/pilot in Kaktovik, Alaska, got him a job washing dishes. Inupiac natives befriended him and worked as his assistants. Mountaineers Books selected his photographs to feature in the first book in their “Braided River” conservation issues imprint.

The North Slope natives are in a tough spot, says Kazlowski. The oil economy brings them jobs, income and education, but their bedrock values are built on hunting and whaling, both of which may be impacted by oil development. “The oil on the Arctic coast has been a great thing for them economically,” says Kazlowski. “The problem comes back to the fact that supposedly the oil companies know there is an insane amount of oil along the Arctic coast, onshore and offshore. Now with the ice drawing back, there’s an opportunity to exploit that oil. At the end of the day our desire for oil is really going to affect their society.”

“The Last Polar Bear” is a stunning photo book but less successful in the printed-matter department. Many writers of varying talent weigh in, and it has the feeling of having been written by committee. Several typos mar the first few pages — a glaring defect in an otherwise beautiful book.

But most people will be drawn to this book by the photos, which capture an animal that truly qualifies for the overused moniker “magnificent” — polar bears hunting, mothering, swimming, playing — more up-close and personal than you’ve ever seen them before.

In photographing the world’s largest marine mammal, “up-close and personal” can mean living on the edge. The “tagging” incident came about when Kazlowski was photographing a mother polar bear feeding on a carcass.

“Usually cubs will play with each other; the other mothers will baby-sit,” Kazlowski recalls. “For some reason this mother would not let her cubs play with other cubs, but this one mother, she left the cubs with me to go feed. I felt something touch my back. They were playing tag, and this one, a 60-pound cub, wanted to tag me. It dropped down and ran off, wanting me to chase it.”

In fact, it can be difficult to keep track of a polar bear. “You start photographing the one and you think you have your eye on the other one. That’s what they do for a living, sneak up on you.

“They’re so sensitive, they can feel pulses on the wind, they can feel energy. They just have that sixth sense … They are so grounded to the ice and the earth. They live in such a state of quietness and isolation — they have to wait days or weeks for a seal. They’re deep-thinking animals.”

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com

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