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ALEX COHEN, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY. Alex Chadwick is away on an assignment, but he left us another of his occasional pieces about photographers called Photo Op. Here's the other Alex.

ALEX CHADWICK: When he was eight or nine, Howard Ruby started a little home photography business.

Mr. HOWARD RUBY (Photographer): Taking pictures of the kids at junior high school, and I guess I was the entrepreneur even then.

CHADWICK: Circumstances have changed a lot since then in many ways, some good, some not. Howard Ruby put away his cameras but retained entrepreneurial spirit. In the '60s he founded Oakwood Apartments, furnished temporary housing for executives and consultants and the occasional divorcee. There are now 18,000 Oakwood Apartments throughout the world. Howard made himself a very wealthy man. He's able to afford just about any interest now, and he's turned back to taking pictures.

(Soundbite of camera)

CHADWICK: That's one of his digital cameras shooting in rapid-fire burst mode. He bought it for a trip that he and his wife, the actress Yvette Mimieux, made to northern Canada. They were on a sort of a photo safari to shoot pictures of polar bears, and there and then, four or five years ago, Howard Ruby fell in love with this new digital camera and with his subject.

Mr. RUBY: I felt an enormous attraction to this animal, as the world does. I found out it's the world's third most popular animal.

CHADWICK: Right behind dogs and horses, he says, and polar bears aren't just appealing. They also have an important message, today, about climate change. The ice pack equivalent of coal mine canaries: polar bears.

Mr. RUBY: If they go, then the world is really in trouble, and as I read more and more about it, I realized that they were the most threatened, and they're so human-like in so many of their behaviors and the behaviors with their young. I think that they're closer to human behavior than any major mammal, and they're the biggest sea mammal in the world, and they are called a marine mammal because of their ability to swim and because they live on the water.

CHADWICK: Here's an image, one of your images here. This is a - must be the mother of these two cubs. There are two cubs here. She looks like she's trying to take a nap in this snow meadow, and these two are - they're not napping, they're playing on her.

Mr. RUBY: She's used to that. They started as little cubs that are, when they're born, they're about 12 inches long and weigh a pound. They're like a three-week-old kitten. So she's nursed them, so she's enormously protective, but she's used to having them crawl all over and trying to get a little snooze in - in between - for the last two months, before that picture was taken.

But if she hears any noise, just like a mother - a human mother that is three rooms away can hear the child murmur in the other room, she can hear any bit of noise from any threat to them, which could be anything from a wolf to a fox to an eagle, even when they're this size, could come in and grab one. And so she's absolutely ready to jump up and protect her young.

CHADWICK: Howard began making regular trips to photograph polar bears above the Artic Circle. We have some of those images at our Web site, npr.org. Howard put a lab in his basement with a half-dozen computers and big-screen monitors and a giant printer that can turn out four-foot-wide high quality images. These polar bears, some parts of them, their heads, they're life-sized.

(Soundbite of printer)

CHADWICK: And amid all that artic white, Howard Ruby found himself turning a little green, and not the money green usually associated with a successful capitalist, a real-estate entrepreneur.

Mr. RUBY: If you would've said 20 years ago or 30 years ago, even 10 years ago, that as a real-estate man that I would be turning green, I would've probably looked for the nearest exit, but here I am proselytizing that the world should take note, and it seems like they are. There's a firestorm of activity in the field of global warming and greening right now that I wouldn't have imagined to hit for another 10 years.

CHADWICK: So this weekend in Santa Barbara, California, there is a photo exhibit of 70 of Howard's large-format arctic photos, most of them three by five feet, on display as part of the city's Earthy Day celebration, and he's developing an education program for children. He's created packs of trading cards featuring pictures of his beloved polar bears.

Mr. RUBY: If it brings some awareness to the polar bear and makes the polar bear the face of global warming, I would be an awfully happy man. That would be enough.

CHADWICK: But there is one more change. You should know about Howard Ruby the photographer. He is slowly, inexorably going blind.

How much is your vision restricted now?

Mr. RUBY: My vision is down to about I would say 50 percent of the normal vision of RP, retinitis pigmentosa, which is sometimes known as tunnel vision. So fortunately, as I wink one eye and look through the other eye, I can look right through the lens of that camera and see a shot unfolding in front of me absolutely perfectly, but unless someone points out that there's a bear coming at me from the right-hand side, I wouldn't see it at all. So I usually have someone with me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHADWICK: But when you look through the camera, you can see everything that that camera can see.

Mr. RUBY: Absolutely, and if I have a wide-angle lens, it'll widen my vision all the way out to as far as it goes. As this progresses, and the disease does progress, or the condition - it's not really a disease, it's a hereditary thing - as it progresses, right up to the point where I'm dealing with a very small tunnel the size of that camera eyepiece, I'll still be able to take pictures, and I plan to.

CHADWICK: Photographer and Oakwood Apartments CEO Howard Ruby. His collection of polar bear and arctic photos goes on display Sunday outside the county courthouse in Santa Barbara, California. You can find reproductions of some of those images at our Web site, npr.org.

BRAND: And that interview by our colleague, Alex Chadwick. He returns on Monday.

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