His photos are beautiful.
Set against either a plain white or black background, Joel Sartore’s photography brings into focus every scale, feather and tentacle of hundreds of animals the world over.
Sartore, an award-winning National Geographic photographer (and Wichita Eagle staff member from 1985 to 1992), has been compiling a “Photo Ark” for the past 11 years in an attempt to document every living animal on the planet. So far he’s photographed more than 6,300 species.
But how, exactly, does he do it?
That’s a question that will be answered in a new PBS documentary set to air: “RARE – Creatures of the Photo Ark.” The show will air in three parts, starting at 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 18.
In the show, viewers will see how Sartore gets these intricately detailed photographs – and how stressful the job can be sometimes.
He photographs every animal in a portable studio setting to try to give them the same treatment and gravity that photographers give human subjects.
He seldom shoots in the wild, “because it’s very hard to convince a tiger to come lay out in front of a background for 40 minutes.”
“Many of the species I’ve photographed only exist in zoos – they’re really the keepers of the kingdom now,” Sartore said. “They’re providing funding for habitat conservation in the wild and vital education work with the public, which now lives more and more in an urban setting. … That’s really important, going forward, to make sure people stay connected and care about the animals and the forests and the prairies and the oceans that surround them.”
Viewers will watch Sartore trek up a New Zealand mountain to photograph a rowi kiwi, take pictures of one of the last northern white rhinos in the world near Prague, and more. It’s a little meta – camera crews following around a camera person – but Sartore said it was a fun experience to be filmed for the show.
“They were with me about 18 months around the world,” he said.
Sartore’s hope is that when people look these animals in the eye, they will care for them enough to take action.
“Right now, we’re on track to lose half of these species by the turn of the century,” he said. “It’s folly to think we can doom that many species and not have it come back to bite humanity very hard.”
Sartore anticipates that completing the Photo Ark will take another decade to 15 years.
“I’ve gotten most of what U.S. zoos have in their collections,” he said. “Now I’m going to be going abroad more and more. We’re branching out because we have to.”
Sartore’s journey in photography started professionally in Wichita, shooting assignments such as Bob Dole’s presidential campaign, Riverfest and an award-winning series about workers in the Tri-State Mining District.
He’s come to the Sedgwick County Zoo “many times” to photograph animals for the Photo Ark, he said: rhinos, birds, amphibians, reptiles and even a few insects.
“The Sedgwick County Zoo is a world-class institution – people don’t know how lucky they are to have such a great zoo right there in Wichita,” Sartore said. “It’s one of my favorite zoos.”
‘RARE – Creatures of the Photo Ark’
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 25 and Aug. 1
Where: Channel 8, PBS (KPTS locally)
What: Three-part documentary showing award-winning National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore’s quest to document all the Earth’s animals in a “Photo Ark”
More info: www.pbs.org/wgbh/rare