STEVEN KAZLOWSKI, the photographer behind the book The Last Polar Bear, never meant to be the go-to polar bear guy, let alone obsessed with saving them. After growing up on Long Island, he went to the Arctic because “with all that space and light, it seemed like a good place to learn photography.” For 12 years he worked odd jobs—in construction in Seattle, as a fish-boat observer in Alaska—and, with any free time he could buy (sometimes living in a station wagon on the North Slope’s fabled Haul Road), shot pictures: Bears eying seal suppers. Playful bears tossing around a tire, an oil drum, and a walrus flipper. The Iñupiaq bear hunters who became Kazlowski’s hosts and friends. (He finally tried bear meat last year: “It’s pretty tasty.”)

Now everyone from Vanity Fair to standing-room only audiences at book readings is clamoring for Kazlowski’s photos. His book comes at the right moment: Nothing says carbon catastrophe more plaintively than a white bear thrashing in a warming sea.

Kazlowski insists the bears found him—and still do. “Cubs sneak up and play tag with me. I get away fast—bears can rip your head off just playing.” But, he maintains, “they’re very gentle, loving, deep-thinking animals. They’re zen hunters. Imagine sitting on the ice for 48 hours waiting for a seal to pop through a hole.”