Close to the heart

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Ottawa photographer Michelle Valberg is coming out with a new book of her photographs from the Arctic. (Chris Mikula / Ottawa Citizen)

Michelle Valberg’s assistant is explaining that the boss is busy on a shoot.

In the Arctic? With Valberg, it’s the logical thing to ask.

“Not today. But we’ve got a supermodel in!”

Such is the life of an Ottawa photographer who mixes fashion, portraiture, and waiting for hours at –35 C for a view of newborn polar bears, with Mama Bear getting nervous.

Commercial work at Valberg Imagery in Ottawa pays the bills, but the North keeps calling Michelle Valberg back — 27 times so far. And now she’s publishing a book of photos, Arctic Kaleidoscope: The People, Wildlife and Ever-Changing Landscape, a collaboration with writer Julie Beun.

She was in northern Manitoba in late March. Guides in Wapusk National Park allow visitors to approach the bears’ den, though not too close.

“We saw four different families. These are mums just outside of the den with very, very small cubs.” One mother began strolling toward Valberg “and then the guides kind of scooted her off with the snowmobile.

“It was pretty intimidating.”

Valberg is famous for her pictures that show the Arctic in a close, intimate way, even when they’re enormous landscapes. Viewers can’t help wondering how she happened to get all the walruses growling in unison, or the whale surfacing right beside, or the mother bear and cubs playing.

Her secret: Hours and hours of waiting. “Every day we would spend probably five (or) six hours if we found a bear, just watching. A lot of the time she would be sleeping and we watched the babies crawl on top of her and fight, and do all that.

“We’re in the middle of the tundra, 11 of us, there’s nothing around you for miles and miles and miles. There’s no other people and we are that intimate with this amazing creature.

“It’s not in a zoo. You are in their habitat, their home, their place, their life. It’s an amazing gift.”

Valberg’s work gives the impression that she can magically arrange the world around her. How else would get capture a hot air ballon just as it emerges into view in the gap between two tall icebergs?

“We waited 12 days for that shot.” Bad weather kept grounding John Davidson, an Ottawa balloon pilot who had travelled north, until finally one sunny day he launched.

She picked her position — not an easy choice, “and you’re in polar bear country so you can’t just go walking on your own.

“So he launched, and I said ‘If you could just go between the bergs that would be really great,’ and he did!”

For good measure she shot him all over and around the icebergs, high and low, and out of all that picked one shot for the book.

Why that one?

“Because it’s a balloon in the middle of two icebergs.”

But what about shooting wildlife somewhere warmer instead?

“Put me anywhere, I’m happy,” she says. “But the North has a magic spirit. It has a warmth amongst the cold. It’s so untouched and raw. To be able to stand on land and feel you are the first to have ever stood there has an amazing pull.”

With incredibly photogenic material in all directions, Valberg somehow has to select the few shots that stand above the rest. It’s not easy, and she has made it harder by shooting some 150,000 images of the North.

“And try to make a book of 224 pages out of that. Or an exhibition of 84 (at the Canadian Museum of Nature two years ago.)

“Especially with wildlife you shoot a tremendous amount to get that one shot. The bear could change its head a millimetre … and a change of head position can make a good photograph into a great photograph.”

She wants to tell a story with the images. “You might pick one that’s not quite as strong as the others, but it tells the story.”

The photos have an amazing clarity, and there’s a lot more colour than white. Green northern lights, blue icebergs, multi-coloured wild flowers, orange and red rocks, vibrant clothing. Valberg writes in the book about seeing whales up close where the ice meets open water, of smelling walruses crowded on shore (“fetid,” she calls it), and of emotional connections.

One connection comes from Hebron, a village founded by 19th-century Moravian missionaries in northern Labrador, abandoned in 1959.

Ghostly frame buildings and a graveyard remain. It’s a national history site.

Later Valberg showed her Labrador photos to an Inuk woman in Ottawa only to learn the woman’s grandparents had lived in Hebron.

She later emailed the woman more photos from the trip.

“Sitting at her computer, she opened my email and sat in stunned silence,” Valberg writes in her book. “I had taken photos of her grandmother’s tombstone.”

It has cost her thousands of dollars per trip, and the payback is slow and uncertain. Nunavut’s tourism office is a customer. So are Canadian embassies. She works for magazines and travel companies.

Valberg wants readers of her book to know the Arctic, and it’s safe to say most don’t today.

“Anything about the Inuit? Do you know how they live? Do you know why seal hunting is so important to them? These are all the things I didn’t know and I’m a proud Canadian.

“We always laugh about Americans not knowing what (our) capital is, or that we have a prime minister.” But we are just as guilty of not knowing our own north.

“When I started to go up there people asked ‘Where are you going?’ and I told them (to) Pond Inlet.

“Well, where’s Pond Inlet? On the northeastern side of Baffin Island. And their eyes just glaze over.

“When I went up there and stood on the floe edge and I was where the sea ice ends and the open water exists and you have creatures like polar bears and whales and birds and walrus and seals,” and Inuit guides helped her live in a tent on the ice, “I realized how little I knew and I wanted to know more.

“I just like to tell the story with the photos.”

It happens to be the International Year of the Arctic, a fact she didn’t know her five years ago when she began planning a book on a different topic.

“I started a book on Canada, then decided when I landed in the Arctic that it was going to be on the Arctic.”

Cameras are rugged, but -55 C present special challenges.

“Canada Goose is my best friend.”

But she still froze her fingertips last month in Manitoba. “I was on my camera for about 10 minutes, with gloves on. Of course you aren’t getting off your camera with a bear approaching you with babies.”

It took two days before the fingers felt normal again.

She keeps batteries close to her body for warmth, and doesn’t move the camera suddenly between extremes of warmth and cold, or condensation forms.

Arctic Kaleidoscope: The People, Wildlife and Ever-Changing Landscape sells for $59.95. It can be purchased online at michellevalberg.com or at Valberg Imaging, 111 Sherwood Dr.

The supermodel (Carol Alt, if you’re wondering) shoot went just fine.

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