He lived most of his life in traditional Inuit camps near Cape Dorset, on the southwest coast of Baffin Island, now in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. This was a time of social and technological change among the Inuit, who were shifting from nomadic life to permanent settlements, from the use of spears to rifles, from dogteams to snowmobiles. The use of airplanes, electric generators and Western clothing were also changing their human environment. Pitseolak dedicated himself to preserving knowledge of the old ways, by writing, sketching, and especially photography. He documented customs, hunting techniques, stories and myths. His brother was Pootoogoo, a chief.
In 1912 Pitseolak met photographer Robert J. Flaherty. Flaherty, best known today for his documentary movie Nanook of the North (1922), inspired Pitseolak's interest in photography. It was not until the 1930s, however, that Pitseolak took his first recorded photograph. This was for a white visitor who was afraid to approach a polar bear for a shot. Pitseolak took the photo for him, using the visitor's camera.
In 1923 Pitseolak married Annie from Kimmirut. They had seven children, of whom only two daughters, Udluriak and Kooyoo, survived. Annie died of tuberculosis in 1939.
In the 1940s Pitseolak was living in Cape Dorset working for fur-traders when he acquired his first camera, from a Catholic missionary. With the help of his second wife Aggeok (1906-1977), he developed his first photographs in a hunting igloo. Many difficulties had to be overcome, including extreme climate changes, high light levels from the reflective snowscape, and the difficulty of obtaining film and developer. Peter and Aggeok experimented. They used a battery-powered flashlight covered with red cloth as a safelight, and a lens filter made from old sunglasses.
He was a sculptor; his soapstone carving of a bear was presented to the Royal Military College of Canada on Oct 3 1970 by the class of 1920-24.
He was also a painter, executing a series of watercolors in 1939 for John Buchan, later 2nd Baron Tweedsmuir, son of Governor General John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir. The younger Tweedsmuir was a fur trader with the Hudson's Bay Company at the time.
Pitseolak wrote various diaries, notes and manuscripts, all in Inuktitut syllabics. Along with Dorothy Harley Eber, he published People From Our Side (1975), the story of his early life, and Peter Pitseolak's Escape From Death (1977), an account of a near disaster among the ice floes.
He photographed himself, his family, and community members in candid shots. He also posed them with traditional clothing and implements. Over twenty years, Pitseolak made more than 2,000 photographs of the disappearing traditional way of life. In 1961, at the age of 59, he left his camp at Keatuk and returned to settlement life at Cape Dorset. After his death in 1973, more than 1,500 negatives and photographs were purchased from his widow for the National museums of Canada (now part of Canadian Museum of History).
The famed sculptor Okpik Pitseolak (b. 1946) married Peter's son Mark Pitseolak. According to Terry Ryan, former manager of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, Peter Pitseolak's nephew, Kananginak Pootoogook, greatly admired and was influenced by his uncle and also became an artist.
Carved soapstone bear by Peter Pitseolak; donated to Royal Military College of Canada on Oct 3 1970 by the class of 1920-4
- Pitseolak, Peter; Eber, Dorothy Harley (April 1978). People from Our Side: A Life Story with Photographs and Oral Biography. Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-34334-5.
- Pitseolak, Okpik, Inuit Art FOundation. Accessed 13 January 2013.
- Sandra Martin (4 December 2010). "The guiding voice of Cape Dorset artists chronicled the Inuit past". The Globe and Mail. Toronto, Canada: Phillip Crawley.[permanent dead link]