Joel Sartore believes art can save the world.
One species at a time.
“I really care about things that we want to say are the least among us. The small things that nobody pays any attention to,” he said. “Freshwater mussels, I’ll photograph ’em so that they look like they have faces. Whatever it takes. Why? Because 75 to 80 percent of our freshwater mussels in this country are threatened or endangered or functionally extinct. They’re in real trouble, and that indicates bad water quality, doesn’t it? And I drink water, and I care.”
Born in Ponca City, the esteemed photographer has been contributing to National Geographic for about 25 years. For the past nine, Sartore, 52, also has been building an ark, although not the wooden kind.
His Photo Ark is the largest collection of studio-quality animal portraits in the world — and he’s only about a third of the way to completing it. Sartore’s goal is to capture images of all 10,000 to 12,000 captive animal species on the planet, from tiny Salt Creek tiger beetles to massive Indian rhinoceroses. Not only does he want to give people a true picture, so to speak, of biodiversity, but he also wants to raise awareness of the number of species in peril.
The longtime Nebraska resident’s dual interests in animals and photography began when he was a child and his mother got him a Time-Life picture book on birds. He was especially taken by the image of Martha, the last of the extinct passenger pigeons.
“The passenger pigeon numbered in the billions — billions of birds — flocks that would last three days flying 60 miles per hour, as (naturalist and painter John James) Audubon described it. And we market-hunted them to extinction. This last bird died in 1914. Coming up September of this year will be the 100th anniversary. So, I never got over that, and I never forgot that,” he said.
When his wife, Kathy, was diagnosed with breast cancer nine years ago, the globe-trotting photographer stayed home for about a year while she went through chemotherapy. For the first time in his career, Sartore couldn’t travel, and that gave him time to think about where he wanted to take his art.
“On the days when she felt better and the kids were in school, I would go down to the Lincoln Children’s Zoo and start taking pictures on black and white backgrounds. And I just did that until she got better again,” he said. “After a while, my editor at National Geographic, the natural history editor there, called and said, ‘What have you been doing?’ And I showed her some portraits, and she said, ‘Why don’t you do a story like that?’”
The first story to rely on his new portrait style showcased the wide array of flora and fauna protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The story spun off a 2010 photo book titled “Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species,” as well as a traveling photography exhibition of the same name.
The exhibit will be on view Sept. 13 through Jan. 19 at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in Norman.
“The Sam Noble Museum is an institution dedicated to preserving and fostering biodiversity,” Laura Wilcox, the museum’s publications and promotions specialist, said in an email. “In doing so, the museum hopes to inspire understanding, appreciation and stewardship of the Earth. That’s what ‘Rare’ is all about.”
All the creatures in “Rare,” as well as in his Photo Ark, are depicted on plain black or white backgrounds.
“If you’re trying to make the point that every animal is worth saving, they all have a place, and they all deserve to exist, it’s hard to convey that unless you can have them all the same size,” he said. “The black and white backgrounds are a great equalizer. A snail is every bit as important and large as a grizzly bear.”
He recently returned to his native state for about a week, taking portraits of birds like the black vulture and nighthawk at WildCare rehabilitation center in Noble, photographing an array of finches at the Tulsa Zoo, capturing images of the state bird, the scissor-tailed flycatcher, at the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge near Lawton, and documenting a newly discovered species of salamander at the University of Tulsa.
‘It’s all interesting’
Sartore and his daughter, Ellen, 17, also spent four days at the Oklahoma City Zoo, where he photographed at least 20 species, from an American bison and African lungfish to a black-naped fruit dove and black-headed cat snake. He returned Friday to shoot more animal portraits.
“For us, spending this kind of quality time with a world-renowned photographer who’s going to spread a message that’s so important ... seems just like a dream come true. It’s just another chance to raise awareness,” said OKC Zoo spokeswoman Tara Henson.
Sartore has photographed nearly 4,000 captive animal species, meaning he’s about a third of the way to achieving his goal of getting all of them on his Photo Ark.
“I photograph everything, whether it’s common or rare, because I don’t know what’s going to be around eventually. I just think, you know, it’s all interesting. People ask me what my favorite one is, and I say, ‘Well, it’s the next one. It’s the next one.’ And it really is true,” he said.
“Can we save species? A lot of people want to know that. Well, sure, you bet. But we’ve gotta know about them. That’s kind of the Ark’s point, to get people to care about animals. They can’t care about them if they don’t know about them.”
Joel Sartore’s ‘Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species’