While there are those among us who may have had a run-in with a New York weasel or two, nothing compares with Joel Sartore’s encounter. He got right up in the face of the teeth-baring varmint, stared into his beady little eyes and caught him — that is, with his Nikon digital SLR camera.
The little critter is one of close to 10,000 mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians and arthropods the award-winning photographer has shot as part of the National Geographic Photo Ark, an image repository founded by Sartore in 2005 with the aim of documenting every wildlife animal in human care across the planet. More than 250 distinct species selected from the Ark archive are on display at the Southampton Arts Center from Thursday through Sept. 8 in a highly engaging exhibition presented in conjunction with the International Center of Photography.
“I now have to go farther to get fewer,” comments Sartore of the approximately 5,000 creatures he has left to photograph. What’s next? Either Borneo to photograph an indigenous rhino, he says, or Utah and Colorado to train his lens on a small mountain-dwelling, rabbit-like mammal called a pika.
Sartore, who has lived in Nebraska for most of his life, was a contract field photographer for National Geographic for 17 years before he began shifting his focus to documenting animals living in zoos, aquariums, private breeders and sanctuaries. The transition occurred after his wife was diagnosed with cancer and he needed to be home to care for her and their three then-young children.
“As she started to feel better, I would go on little shoots at the local Lincoln zoo,” he recalls. “My first photograph was of a naked mole rat on a white cutting board in the zoo’s kitchen. I also took pictures of a poison dart frog that day.”
Since then, Sartore has depicted all his subjects — big and small — against a white or black backdrop. “The super simple compositions,” he says, “resonate more quickly with viewers.” For the littler species, the photographer uses an enclosed cloth tent, where it takes only two to three minutes to capture the perfect image. Larger animals require a little more doing.
“For one rhino I photographed, we had the zoo create a black wall in an off-exhibit space, where he went for a week or two to have his lunch. That way he got used to it and wasn’t scared on shoot day.”
Selections from Sartore’s compendium of up-close-and-personal images have been exhibited in some 40 venues worldwide, from Barcelona to New Zealand. They have even been projected onto the sides of the Empire State Building, the United Nations and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Besides the weasel, 12 other native New Yorkers appear in the Southampton Arts Center show, including the harbor seal and the Coastal Barrens Buckmoth caterpillar, both of which can be spotted on Long Island.
The penetrating gaze of many of the creatures, as here cast by the pygmy slow loris and Malayan tiger, "makes us pay attention,” notes Sartore. “We want to believe nature is doing OK. But as animals go away, so can people. The Ark is not just a giant obituary. It’s meant to move us to want to do something.”
WHEN | WHERE 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday-Monday, June 27-Sept. 8, Southampton Arts Center, 25 Jobs Lane
INFO Free ($5 suggested donation), 631-283-0967, southamptonartscenter.org