At the Top and Bottom Of the World in Photos

Photographer Galen Rowell takes on the planet's remotest, harshest environments


By Galen Rowell

University of California Press


Rudolf the reindeer lives at the North Pole. After that, distinctions between the top of the world and the bottom are less explicit.

The most likely mental image of the polar regions, which make up about 15 percent of the planet's land area, is of frigid, undifferentiated wastelands. Award-winning wildlife photographer Galen Rowell dispels this common notion in a series of thoughtful photographs and informative word pictures.

The first section of his book juxtaposes photographs of the Arctic and Antarctic, producing many educational surprises. For example, a small ice spur seems to tower above the snowy Arctic terrain, while the large sun-streaked dome of the United States' Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is eclipsed in a crater-like basin of ice and snow.

Rowell omits buildings from his northern views because they cannot be permanently erected in the Arctic. The North Pole is located in the center of an ocean, amid pack ice that drifts at more than one mile per hour. But the South Pole is located 9,300 feet inland, in the middle of a continent surrounded by oceans. Antarctica's thick ice sheets give it the world's highest mean elevation. Here glacial ice moves at a sedate 30 feet per year, allowing permanent buildings to be constructed.

Rowell refers to the Far North as America's Serengeti, and shows caribou running through a lush summer meadow. Cut off from the evolution of mammals that eventually populated the north, Antarctica has no warm-blooded land animals. Correspondingly, Rowell pictures chinstrap penguins on an iceberg near the world's largest rookery, Zavadovsky Island.

In Rowell's image duets, Hudson Bay polar bears stare across the page to an Antarctic Weddell seal and her newborn cub. The Arctic tundra, rich in wildflowers and insects, contrasts with the sparse, nearly bugless terrain of Antarctica.

Unlike other image-makers who have codified the visual idea of the polar region as devoid of human presence, Rowell includes many images of human activity.

Everyday life is represented in a scene of an Eskimo hunting bearded seal. Past and present explorers are also described. Remarkably, the polar climate preserves artifacts as deserts do. The interior of the hut used by Ernest Shackleton during his 1907 Antarctica exploration looks recently vacated.

Politics, of course, has penetrated the Poles. In Rowell's photograph, the controversial Alaska pipeline arcs through the tundra near the Brooks range. In Antarctica, the elderly son of a whaler is pictured in the front yard of his bungalow, behind the ''Stop Killing Whales'' sign he posted on his picket fence. Eskimo peoples are allowed subsistence whale hunting in the Arctic, but the 1994 international treaty, broken by Japanese and Russians, prohibits whaling in most of the southern seas. Interestingly, Rowell depicts an Eskimo harpooning a bowhead whale, but he does not show large-scale illegal whaling.

The last photographs in Rowell's book emphasize recent scientific findings. Some of these sights are disturbing. In the Siberian Arctic shore, along what has been called ''the Earth's most fragile biome,'' indigenous people struggle to maintain a subsistence existence. Scientists sample the Arctic haze, pushed along by prevailing winds from the industrialized world.

The captions included throughout the text are concise and informative. For those who want more detail, the book concludes with notes on all the scenes and facts, making it especially useful in classrooms and home libraries.

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