The Photo Ark: Vanishing
By Joel Sartore
National Geographic, 2019
The juxtaposition doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s purely heartbreaking: the season’s most beautiful book is also its saddest. National Geographic’s “Photo Ark” series is now three installments old. The first book, The Photo Ark, featured page after page of gorgeously-detailed animal portraits by photographer Joel Sartore, portraits most often taken of the animals actually alone in a portrait studio against a black backdrop, often looking vulnerably forlorn. That first book was a gasp of revelation: shorn of motion-blurs and Serengetic foliage, these animals looked off the pages directly at you - no intermediaries, no possibility of dismissal.
The second book in the “Photo Ark” series was lavish with beauty: it dealt with birds.
And this third volume? It trafficks almost entirely in grief. Here are the animals on their way off the planet. Setting his 300 or so portraits into four conservation categories, threatened, vulnerable, endangered, and extinct, Sartore once again provides pages of absolutely halting photos. And he makes sure to include hopeful quotes, testaments from conservationists about the radical recoveries some endangered species have enjoyed in recent years, thanks to the efforts of people all over the world.
The pictures tell a very different story, of course. “What’s lost when an animal goes extinct?” asks Elizabeth Kolbert in her Foreward to the book. “One way to think of a species, be it of ape or of ant, is as an answer to a puzzle: how to live on planet Earth … We are, in this sense, plundering a library - the library of life.” That’s what’s on such beautiful display on page after page of this book: damaged books from a plundered library.
These are species whose numbers have dwindled to crisis levels or beyond. These are species with numbers fewer than 1000, fewer than 500, drastic numbers. “Scientists first discovered the Yangtze giant softshell turtle in 1873, but the last 146 years have revealed little more about this elusive species,” readers learn on one typical page. “What we do know is that it is the world’s largest freshwater turtle - and the most endangered. Only four individuals are known to survive.”
Quite often, the pictures record individuals who are already gone. Sartore includes a shot of a preserved ivory-billed woodpecker from the 1920s, but the near-misses happen far more recently as well, in the case, for instance, of the cross-river gorilla: “An estimated 200 to 300 of these gorillas exist in the wild today, scattered across Nigeria an Cameroon. Pictured here is Nyango, the only confirmed Cross River gorilla in captivity. She lived at the Limbe Wildlife Center in Cameroon for more than 20 years before her death in 2017.”
Nyango looked beautiful.
—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.