National Geographic’s Photo Ark by photographer Joel Sartore

‘Photo Ark’ Brings the Earth’s Endangered Wildlife to Olewine Gallery

By Scott Weidensaul

An extraordinary window into the planet’s threatened heritage — from one of the most respected nature photographers in the world — is coming to the Ned Smith Center in April.

Joel Sartore’s Photo Ark is a remarkable project attracting global attention, including a three-part television series (“RARE: Creatures of the Photo Ark”) that aired last year on PBS. Drawing on more than 25,000 of Sartore’s images of captive animals from around the world — from tiny insects to elephants and great apes — it makes stunningly plain the consequences of the ongoing extinction crisis. Sartore himself will be at the Center for several events during the annual Nature and Arts Festival on Saturday, July 28.

This will be the second time that Sartore, a National Geographic Fellow and regular contributor to National Geographic magazine, has brought himself and his work to the Center. In 2010, his “Fragile Nature” exhibit was featured in the Olewine Gallery, and he addressed a packed auditorium in Harrisburg.

The Photo Ark was born out of a family crisis when Sartore’s wife, Kathy, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005. Remaining home in Lincoln, Neb., to care for her and their three children, Sartore began photographing animals in the local zoo, using a stark white or black background to force the viewer to focus on the creature — an approach, he quickly realized, that had an incredible visual impact. Kathy fully recovered, and in the more than 10 years since then, Joel has made it his goal to photograph all roughly 12,000 species held in human care, from tiny fish and salamanders to big cats, birds and rare frogs. The Photo Ark now encompasses nearly 8,000 species, and Sartore estimates it will take another 10 or 15 years — a full quarter-century since the start — for him to reach his goal.

In the meantime, the Ark has proven to be a powerful tool for conveying the beauty and diversity of the natural world. Many of the animals in his photographs look straight into the lens — straight into the viewer’s eyes — in a way that all but demands an emotional connection. Photo Ark collections travel the world, not only in gallery rooms but sometimes at the scale of cities; images from the collection have been projected, hundreds of feet high, on the sides of the Empire State Building and the Vatican.

Some of his subjects are already gone. In 2008, Sartore photographed “Bryn,” the last remaining Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit, whose death doomed her species to extinction. Likewise for “Toughie,” the last Rabb’s fringe-limbed tree frog from Panama, which died in 2016, seven years after he was photographed for the Photo Ark.

“It is folly to think that we can destroy one species and ecosystem after another and not affect humanity,” Sartore often says. “When we save species, we’re actually saving ourselves.”

Joel Sartore’s Photo Ark will be in the Olewine Gallery from April 14 to the end of Aug., 2018.