A new perspective on the High North
Polar Tales: The Future of Ice, Life, and the Arctic by Melissa Schäfer and Fredrik Granath
The Norwegian American
These days, exquisite imagery of the Arctic are pretty easy to come by. Having been utterly remote for most of human history, modern equipment has made it more accessible—and more fragile—than ever. And indeed, the dramatic icy land- and seascapes, the scant but secretly abundant wildlife, with a host of endemic species, and the allure of an environment so harsh and unwelcoming to humans make for superb photography.
Into this flush of images, Melissa Schäfer and Fredrik Granath, partners in both life and work, have dared to tread with their impressive new book, Polar Tales (2020).
And despite the growing popularity of the Arctic in pictures, Schäfer and Granath have created something that stands out. The images that this book presents feel particularly important in the context of an Arctic undergoing rapid transformation due to human-induced climate change—a notion that this book does not fail to emphasize.
There are a few reasons that the book’s photographs stand out. The dedication of the photographers is certainly one. Based partly in Stockholm and partly in Longyearbyen in Svalbard, they have spent an enormous amount of time in the region, often staying in old trappers’ cabins in the places off the increasingly beaten tourist path, affording them deeper intimacy with Svalbard’s Arctic landscape and its inhabitants.
The photos reveal that intimacy well. Moreover, the format of the book is unlike most of the Arctic photo collections I’ve seen, which tend to offer a series of singular highlights—the “best of” album culled from countless photos taken.
But Polar Tales shows the authors’ sense for story. Schäfer and Granath have taken a much more narrative approach than the “best-of” model, allowing readers to gain a better sense of the evolution of a photographed moment, rather than a mere snapshot.
Throughout the book, there are short descriptive texts, written from Granath’s perspective, that provide a sense of the duo’s experiences in Svalbard, especially their encounters with the polar bears that make up the bulk of the photos’ subjects.
For example, one text describes their meeting with “Helen,” cast as the first polar bear that Schäfer had ever met. The narrative has Helen approaching the couple, climbing up a deep blue iceberg, seeming to pose for a portrait before climbing down and playfully rolling and tumbling in the snow.
Accompanying the text is a series of magnificent full-page images of Helen in different phases of this tiny story: ascending the ice, posing, playing, and finally shaking off the snow.
A special touch is that interspersed between photos of the bear are striking images of the ice she climbed upon, with its dazzling geometry and rich palette of blues—a startling reminder of the vanishing material that makes the bears’ home.
The authors work to convey the urgency of the threat climate change poses to the polar bears’ and countless other species’ livelihoods. Both the texts and the images themselves work in harmony to drive that message home.
The narrative that opens the book’s first chapter sets an unsettling stage: on New Year’s Day, when the couple landed in Svalbard together for the first time, they “were met by a mild breeze—and pouring rain.”
The authors’ expectations of mid-winter in the High North were shattered by the above-freezing polar night that greeted them. The world under climate change feels upside down.
My own journey to Svalbard was similar in its foreboding. I arrived in the world’s most remote region on a Boeing 737 in February of 2016, just two months after a New Year’s Eve where above-freezing temperatures had been recorded at the North Pole for the first time. The irony of that fact—that an emissions-breathing dragon arrives several times a week at ground zero of climate change—is not lost on me.
So the urgency of the message these photos and text communicates is potent. As an Arctic photographer, you are too often literally watching the very identity of the Arctic melt before your very eyes.
And the book finishes with a dose of pathos in just that vein. The last chapter before the epilogue, called “The Last Stand,” features a series of photographs of a young male bear in May, skinny and desperate, climbing an already-bare rock face to hunt for birds. He faces a challenging, maybe deadly, summer.
“As he walked out on a ledge,” Granath writes, “the thought of ‘the last polar bear’ struck us.” If one were ever to truly see the last living wild polar bear, he imagines, “he will probably look a lot like this one: skinny, climbing a cliff, and fighting for survival.”
The images of this bear—again, with the narrative intimacy that characterizes the book—coupled with the urge to imagine the last polar bear, are a gut punch. The Arctic we have so long imagined is transforming into something else—and at what cost?
For this message alone, Polar Tales is a remarkable contribution to the ongoing story of the changing, vanishing idea of the Arctic. It is a mixture of beauty and melancholy, made all the deeper by the authors’ attempt to convey the personal relationship they feel they had with these bears.
But the critic in me is also somewhat suspicious of the personification of the bears. I do not doubt the profundity of the authors’ experience (in fact, I’m jealous of it), nor their feeling of closeness to the bears.
In the texts, I detect a little too much of the idea of ownership over the personality of these truly wild animals—these are “our” bears”—however well-intended. Although Schäfer and Granath are clearly far more responsible and cautious, I couldn’t help but think of Timothy Treadwell, the grizzly bear fanatic made famous by Werner Herzog’s film Grizzly Man (2005). Treadwell spent innumerable hours in extraordinarily close contact with grizzlies in Alaska, claiming to know them personally, as though he had been taken in—a hubris that ultimately proved fatal.
Language, even the language of images, is powerful—and its power isn’t entirely innocent. With the claim of personal relationships with wild animals comes a question: for whose sake do we seek to help them? And on whose terms? So, while I would caution readers against falling into a belief that we can “know” polar bears, as though we speak the same language, this book is important and beautiful, and worth more than a look.
To order Polar Tales, visit the Rizzoli website at www.rizzoliusa.com/book/9780847868841.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 15, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.