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Leaping white wolf on Canada's Ellesmere Island. This photo by Ely's Jim Brandenburg was picked as one of the Top 40 Nature Photographs of all time. (Duluth News Tribune/Photo courtesy of Jim Brandenburg)

Ely man's photos ranked among best of all time

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Four photographs by Ely, Minn., photographer Jim Brandenburg are among the Top 40 Nature Photographs in the history of photography.

The collection was assembled by the International League of Conservation Photographers and includes some of Brandenburg's best-loved photos. The league made its selections to celebrate Earth Day, April 22.

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"It's the strangest feeling I've ever had in my life," Brandenburg said from his home in Ely. "Somehow, it's a combination of embarrassment, humility -- and pride, because it's your peers."

The Brandenburg photos include a white wolf leaping between ice floes in the Canadian Arctic, a gray wolf peering among trees in northern Minnesota, an oryx on a sand dune in Namibia and bison in Minnesota's Blue Mounds State Park.

The collection includes the work of photographic giants such as Ansel Adams, Ed Weston and several National Geographic photographers. Brandenburg, who grew up near Luverne, Minn., spent more than three decades as a photographer for National Geographic magazine, traveling the world on assignment.

His first serious photographic adventure was a trip to Bathurst Inlet in Canada's Arctic in 1970 with pathologist and anthropologist Dr. Art Aufderheide of Duluth. The two spent six weeks making a film documentary of Inuit people who were still living a nomadic lifestyle in the pre-snowmobile era.

Aufderheide was not surprised that Brandenburg's photos were among the Top 40 collection.

"He comes out with a picture that someone else might not have thought to take," Aufderheide said. "In his animal pictures, the animal is almost always doing something. It's not a calendar picture."

Brandenburg's photo of a wolf leaping between ice floes off Ellesmere Island may be among his best known. It graced the cover of his book, "White Wolf." He shot it, he said, while sitting on a four-wheeler on shore. He and biologist Dave Mech had been living near a wolf pack on the island for some time. They called that wolf, the alpha male, Buster.

"I probably have 10 pictures of him [in that sequence]," said Brandenburg, 64. "The water was only like a foot deep. There was a dead seal nearby. He was coming and going."

Buster was the same wolf who chased Brandenburg on another occasion. The wolves had dragged a small seal to their den area, where Brandenburg often took photos. Buster was sleeping about 100 yards away.

"I thought, 'He's going to eat that thing, and I want to get some good film,' " Brandenburg said.

But the seal was in the shade, so Brandenburg went to drag it about 10 feet into the sunshine. Buster quickly awoke.

"He looked at me," Brandenburg said. "He had that look like the guard dog at the junkyard. His hair came up. He came at me. I jumped on the four-wheeler and took off, and he was still coming for me."

Fortunately, Buster didn't catch up with him.

Brandenburg said his photos selected by the league represent the important places in his life. The famous portrait of a gray wolf, partially obscured by trees, was made close to his home near Ely, he said.

"The prairie one, of the buffalo -- that's my soul. I grew up there," Brandenburg said. "And when people ask me what's my favorite place, I say the Namib Desert or Ellesmere Island."

Brandenburg was somewhat surprised that that particular bison photo was chosen for the Top 40. It shows a herd of bison in the distance behind fronds of frosted grass.

"I bet I had 100 other images in my body of work that I'd nominate before that one," he said. "It's never been published. It's never been known as an important picture."

Brandenburg said he learned a lot working with Aufderheide in the Arctic while shooting movie footage of the Inuit family. He and Aufderheide traveled with the family by dog team on the land. A baby died on the trip.

"We've all met people who touched our lives," Brandenburg said. "When you're 21 or 22, to go off to do a documentary movie in the Arctic, that's a serious and profound experience. Leaps and bounds above that is the man, Art Aufderheide. It's just his character, his faith in me, his hard work, his brilliance. I had six weeks in a tent with the guy. To this day, he's like my father."

"There are people you've met who, just sitting in a room with them, you feel you've gained something. Art Aufderheide is one of those people."

Aufderheide said Brandenburg's personality made all the difference on that Arctic trip.

"I couldn't have done it with anyone else," Aufderheide said. "[The Inuit's] personal values are very different from ours. You have to be extra sensitive about everything in interacting with those people. ... He plain blended in with those folks. It was Jim that made the whole thing successful."

The International League of Conservation Photographers is a fellowship of the top professional photographers from around the world.

The Top 40 selections represent the work of 25 photographers. With four images, Brandenburg had more than any other photographer.

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