Book Review: "Rare" by Joel Sartore


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Review by John Janovy Jr.

 Portraits of America's Endangered Species by Joel Sartore“Rare: Portraits of America's Endangered Species”
Author: Joel Sartore
Publisher: Focal Point/National Geographic

Joel Sartore’s “Rare” is as rare as his subjects: lichens, snail, birds, cats, flowers, fish and assorted other creatures seemingly destined to depart Planet Earth forever, not as individuals but as kinds. Nebraskans, especially, have come to admire Sartore as a combination storyteller, artist, crusader and guide to natural areas the vast majority of us will never see, much less crawl about in up to our eyeballs staring at wild things through a lens. We locals have been amazed at his touch of wonder and humility on stage, his ability to turn images into extended narratives and his constant focus on mission—to make us aware not only of our place in nature but also how we are messing things up to our long-term detriment. With “Rare,” he brings all of these Sartore qualities to us in book form. And what a book it is.

To begin with, there are no page numbers. Are Sartore and his designers telling us they are not important? Or are they telling us that given these particular photographs, page numbers represent a human intrusion, seemingly minor but nevertheless in competition with the images? It’s easy to conclude the latter. Nor is there a table of contents. We enter “Rare” the same way we might enter the field, having gone there with no plan, no preconceived notions, nobody telling us what to look for and in what sequence to look for it, and no agenda other than to simply observe and think about whatever we encounter whenever we encounter it.

True, the species are presented in sections according to estimated numbers of individuals remaining on Earth. But who among typical residents of the United States ever considers such information to be of truly major importance? Or who among us knows enough biology to automatically associate those figures with a toad in the sand? Not enough of us, Sartore answers. Thus he chooses the very last dusky seaside sparrow, now in 10 percent formalin, to accompany the foreword by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Sartore’s arrangement of this specimen to show the museum tag seems a photographer’s narrative decision. The carefully drawn permanent ink number—UF45752—stands out in stark contrast to the pencil notes—“Last one died 16 Jun 87.” Gone forever, says that tag; now we’ll record the fact and put it in a database, says the specimen number. Klinkenborg then reminds us that one way to get off the official list of endangered species is to go extinct. The rest of “Rare” is then a catalog of those waiting for their tags. We’re relieved he did not put a portrait of one of us somewhere toward the end, a prediction not entirely out of Joel Sartore’s character.

The photographs, of course, are stunning; we’ve come to expect that kind of performance from our resident National Geographic explorer. His comments on the challenges of photographing particular specimens are exceptionally revealing, however, and provide an intriguing view of the artist’s relationship to his subjects. Granted, he’s a walking advertisement for Nikon’s D3, but in notes throughout the book he tells us how he made the shots, and in a short half-page of text near the end he summarizes his overall approach to the more practical problems of lighting, containment of subjects—none tame; some venomous—and the archiving of digital images. Then he reflects on the ephemeral nature of electronic media and decides to print these photographs on archival paper. If the dusky seaside sparrow is telling us anything, it’s that Sartore’s images on real paper will most likely outlive some of the species he managed to capture in his own unique way.

As for the species themselves, a few need particular attention, especially those in which Sartore gives us a biologist’s view: the whole, accompanied by details, parts of bodies, postures observed only by the curious and patient and small populations, e.g., two plover chicks, two red knots, eighteen (of the ~25,000) American burying beetles and seven yellowfin madtoms. Some are absolutely darling (Santa Catalina Island fox, Choctawhatchee beach mouse); others, like an old Republican grandfather, seem to say that the old times, before so much development and drilling, were better (grizzly bear); and close-ups of eyes tell us that all these animals, even crested toads, are watching us, through Sartore’s lens.

“Rare” also has some almost-hidden lessons on climate change. Silene polypetala, the fringed campion, and Discus macclinocki, the Iowa Pleistocene snail, are relicts of the last Ice Age, remnants of a past time when the world was a very different place than it is today and a reminder that planetary forces ultimately dictate who lives and for how long. But on page after page we’re also reminded that human activities, mainly habitat destruction through development, are a truly major factor in the disappearance of genetic diversity from the only planet known to support life. Every biologist knows that we are now living through, indeed causing, one of Earth’s greatest mass extinctions, rivaling if not exceeding those wrought by asteroid collisions and drifting continents. Scientists can give us observations; the result is often controversy, with global warming only the latest example. But Sartore the photographer shows us, unequivocally, in a way that only an artist can, just what it is we are losing, namely a rich diversity of life that simply cannot be understood and appreciated without guidance from a teacher who says: Now here’s what a person should actually see when he or she looks at this flower, salamander, wolf, turtle … fill in the blank.

Reviewer’s recommendation? Buy two copies of this book now; it’s a bargain at the dust jacket price ($24). Then give your second copy to a person you believe needs it the most.


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