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Art and Conservation, a Conversation with Paul Nicklen

When we first heard about famed-photographer Paul Nicklen’s Soho art gallery, we knew it was something to keep an eye on. Each of his stunningly beautiful exhibits deals with pressing issues of environmental conservation – from threatened habitats to fragile coastlines and endangered marine life. We caught up with Paul to discuss his most recent exhibit, Vanishing Worlds, a collaboration with Chris Burkard that focuses on rare Arctic ecosystems and disappearing floodplains in Iceland.

1.     Tell us a little about the inspiration behind Vanishing Worlds. How did it come to be?

From the beginning, the gallery was meant to be a communal space for photographers who believe in conservation. Chris and I have admired each other’s work for a long time, and when the chance came to share my gallery with like-minded photographers, Chris’ name rose to the top of the list pretty quickly. The fact that he can speak to an audience that know him better for his surfing and travel photography is a great bonus. We want the gallery to be a tool to better educate the world about the issues our world faces. Chris’ photos in this exhibit do a great job of that.  

2.     Is there a particular reason this exhibit focuses in on the Arctic and Iceland?

There was no conscious decision to pick any particular location, at least not for me. I know Chris has a love affair with Iceland so he probably just wanted to showcase a place he loves and wants protected. In the end, that’s what we all want. For some, it’s their own backyard they want to keep pristine. For people like Chris and I, who travel the world constantly, the backyard grows a little bigger. And that’s a good thing. We should strive to protect everywhere. Not just the places that affect us personally.  

3.     Your other exhibits have also dealt with delicate ecosystems and the effect of climate change on our world as well. What inspired you to open an art gallery from this point of view?

I have entertained different audiences with my work at different points in my career. From regional magazines in my early days, to National Geographic, to my Instagram account, to SeaLegacy; these outlets have given me a voice to connect with different people from different walks of life. Sure, they mostly have a love of the earth and its beauty as a shared thread, but the audience still shifts and changes as my career does. When the opportunity was presented to open a fine art gallery with a focus on conservation in the heart of one of the greatest cities in the world, I knew it was a chance to speak to a whole new audience. New York is this grand, urban melting pot of engaged people who are highly influential in the world. Plus, let’s be honest, there is enough art out there that is made for the artist. I want my work to stand for something bigger than me. The gallery helps me do that.

Majesty Surfacing by Paul Nicklen

4. What role do you see art and photography playing in raising awareness about climate change and the state of our natural resources?

Art can be what you want it to be, for the creator and for the viewer. I’m no fool. I know some people just want to have a beautiful image of a polar bear on their wall. But from the commentary I’ve seen arise from my Instagram account or from the work I do with SeaLegacy, I know that my photos are making a difference. Sometimes it’s a small difference like inspiring a child to speak up in class about climate change. Sometimes it means prompting the creation of an entire Marine Protected Area. Art—and especially photography—evokes emotion, and emotion inspires individual action. And that’s the only thing that has ever changed the world—an individual’s actions.   

5. In your opinion, what action can people take today to make an impact?

What we can do as individuals is consume less and volunteer more. Buy used goods when it’s applicable. Ride your bike. Pick up garbage off the beach or in the park, and notice what that garbage consists of. Quit using plastic straws and plastic bags. Tell your favourite restaurants not to use straws either. I think everyone knows what they can do each day. The challenge is in caring enough to follow through. Read books. Learn. Act on what you learn. Also, stay hopeful. Stay positive. There’s a lot of negativity in the world and it breeds apathy. We need to care in order to change.  

6. What’s next for you at the gallery?

Pushing the boundaries for how our gallery can function as both an institution for fine art as well as environmental activism. We’re working on bringing as many forward-thinking organizations and individuals to the gallery to see how we can best push for a change in how we see and treat the environment. We want to remind New Yorkers, and our other visitors from all around the world, of their place on the planet and of how closely tied we are to these beautifully intricate systems and stunning locations. And we have more artists coming to help do that, such as the extremely talented Vincent Munier. There is a lot to look forward to, but even more left to be done, and I hope that getting these images out to the world will convince new people every day that the world is worth saving, and that saving has to happen now.

Vanishing Worlds is on display through mid-October at Paul Nicklen Gallery (347 West Broadway in New York). A significant portion of the proceeds will benefit Sea Legacy.