National Geographic photographer Jim Brandenburg was on a trip in Canada’s Ellesmere Island in 1985, given the mission of photographing a dog-sled expedition to the North Pole. Spotting a herd of musk oxen, he decided to get some photos. At that moment, six arctic wolves came into view and startled Brandenburg. The wolves climbed a nearby embankment, finding a place to sit and questioningly stare at Brandenburg. The photographer was so excited about the wolves that he exhaled on his viewfinder, covering it in ice. Taking off two sets of gloves in -40°F weather, he scraped the ice off the viewfinder with his fingernail. Brandenburg then insisted on following the wolves and covering their story. He would go on to spend three years with the wolves.
After tracking the wolves for a couple weeks, Brandenburg found their den. It was located in a large rock with an overhang. Brandenburg said that, in all likelihood, the den had been used for centuries. He and his crew set up camp less than a mile from the den. “When our team would go out for the day, the pack would actually break into our camp, steal food, and tear up tents and sleeping bags,” said Brandenburg. “We had to do all kinds of unusual things to keep them away. One day we erected stone monuments around our camp. Then I had the bright idea to urinate on them because I thought it would act as a territorial signpost. It didn’t really help.”
Brandenburg was fascinated by the wolves, and he studied them so much that he and his crew came up with a name for every wolf. He noticed that the wolves would howl to signal their readiness to hunt. Every pack member had a different note that they would howl, which gave the illusion that the pack was louder and therefore larger than it actually was. “The urge to howl with the wolves tempted Brandenburg frequently while on Ellesmere, but he indulged only once. The wolves stayed agitated for a week afterward.”
Eventually, the wolves warmed up to the photographer. At one point, the mother wolf let Brandenburg go into the den to photograph the pups. “I actually went inside the den once with a BBC film crew and took some photographs. The mother wolf stood outside. Obviously she was a little unhappy about us being there, but she wasn’t especially upset. The group were used to my presence by then, as I was often around the
“Often, when I’m on assignment, I find that I take my best shots on my way to and on my way back from a venue. I’ve learned to take a wider view and not be too focused on the task at hand, otherwise I may miss something. I actually got into a bit of trouble with National Geographic as a result of this. When I sent my film to the magazine, they saw that I was shooting these wolves. The magazine had actually sent over another photographer to shoot the wolves at the same time. They told me that I wasn’t supposed to be shooting the wolves, so I had to really argue the case and tell them that I was onto an epic story. It was only when I sent them the shot of the leaping wolf that they saw I had captured something quite special. It was then that I learned to trust my instincts and follow my heart. I knew the wolf story was something that I had to pursue, even if it meant me risking my career,” said Brandenburg.
One day, Brandenburg followed the wolves to an iceberg, as the wolves often enjoyed romping on the slopes. Standing on the frozen ocean, he set up two cameras (a 600mm lens and a 300mm lens) 150 yards apart. Atop the iceberg, he spotted Buster, the alpha male whom Brandenburg had particularly gotten to know, looking down on the pack. It seemed like a good photo opportunity.
On that day, the wind chill was -70°F, and the speed of the motor drive would snap the cold film. Brandenburg had to take off his gloves, grab another roll, and hastily reload. At that moment, the midnight sun hit the scene just right. After roaming the top of the iceberg, “Buster had found a shaft of light and sat for about 30 seconds. Brandenburg clicked madly. Did the wolf blink? Did the camera shake in the wind? Weeks passed before Brandenburg found he had six photographs of the lone wolf. One was just right.”
“You don’t need to get close to an animal, although I have taken close-up shots in the past. I grew up in an era when every photographer wanted to produce frame-filling portraits. They were trophy shots in a sense, as everyone wanted to see how close they could get to deer and birds,” Brandenburg said. “This image has breathing space.” As it turned out, Brandenburg made a good choice. This photo, along with the rest of the series on the wolves, became some of his most famous work. He eventually turned the project into a book and then later into a film.
“Leaving these wolves was truly traumatic. I was there in 1988, and I haven’t been back. These days, it’s virtually impossible due to the astronomical costs of traveling. National Geographic spent a fortune sending me there, but now I can’t imagine any magazine sending a photographer to the area. When I left, I felt distraught. There was a small landing strip, and when I looked through the plane window during take-off, I saw the pack sitting alongside the runway watching us. It was incredibly poignant – they’d become a kind of surrogate family for me. Right from the outset of the assignment, I knew I was lucky to have found the wolves and be able to learn about them. I knew it was an experience never to be repeated. This was one of those moments that photographers dream of, as it delivers a subject at the perfect place at the perfect time. It’s rare that you get to talk about a shot that works perfectly.”