When you look animals in the eye, it’s easy to see that they’re not so different from us.
These are words that wildlife photographer Joel Sartore has used to describe his work in the National Geographic Photo Ark exhibit featured at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester.
His words have also held true for visitors to the exhibit, said Mary Ladrick, director of education at the museum at 901 Amherst St.
“He’s really going for that eye contact and that emotional connection from looking animals in the eyes,” Ladrick said.
The exhibit, which opened last month, continues through Feb. 13 and features some of the more than 11,000 photos that Sartore has taken at zoos, wildlife sanctuaries and aquariums in more than 50 countries.
It’s all part of a 25-year commitment he’s made to capture what makes the world’s creatures so special. He started the project in 2006, Ladrick said.
Often it’s the cute, fuzzy animals that get all the attention, she recalled him saying. But that's where Sartore comes in.
“He believes that every animal needs to be saved and have a right to exist,” Ladrick said.
Though he does take photos of the the cute and fuzzy — like a curious Arctic fox, a clouded leopard cub, two cuddly little blue penguins and mother orangutan Cheyenne with her fourth foster child, Aurora — some other photos highlight the more unusual — like a wide-mouth Budgett’s frog, a South African springbok mantis and a smiling axolotl, a critically endangered salamander from a small habitat near Mexico City.
In Sartore’s art, the animal is the star, Ladrick said. “There’s no distractions.”
This fact is especially noticeable in the sad, storied eyes of Bryn, a lone Columbia Basin Pygmy rabbit from Washington State that Sartore photographed in 2007 at the Oregon Zoo in Portland.
“A victim of agricultural development, primarily for potatoes grown for French fries, … [s]he died less than a year later, very likely the last of her kind,” a sign under the photo reads.
Bryn was bred with other pygmy rabbits to form a new hybrid that has been reintroduced into the wild, Ladrick said.
Many of the responses to the National Geographic exhibit have been excitement, wonder and surprise, said Christy Broy, guest services and retail manager in the museum gift shop, where she often hears about visitors' experiences in the galleries.
“People are really excited,” she said. They’re “blown away by how big and sort of impressive and important it feels.”
Barbara Whitaker, assistant guest services and retail manager, agreed.
“People are very delighted by the little video at the end,” she said, when Sartore shows how he “wrangled the animals” for their photo shoots.
“They think it’s wonderful how disobedient the animals are,” she said, laughing.
It’s relatable, too, for anyone who’s tried to get a cat to cooperate for a photo, Broy said.
Others have shown surprise at the endangered status of certain animals. Some enjoy the educational experience like they would find at a zoo, she said.
“And then you have people who are more passionate about it on a core level,” Broy said.
Emma Glennon, of Shepherdstown, West Virginia, said the exhibit confirmed for her how serious an issue it is to protect wildlife.
“I think it’s depressing and it shows all of the terrible things that humans do to our environment,” said Glennon, who was visiting the museum last week. “It really kind of forces you to look at them and think that this is what we’re doing to the world.”
Ladrick said a feedback board at the end of the exhibit allows visitors to gain more awareness and brainstorm ideas for how to better protect wildlife and the world at large.
Before coming to Winchester, the Photo Ark exhibit was at The Citadelle Art Museum in Canadian, Texas. Following its run at the MSV, it will move to the University of Oregon's Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Eugene.
The Photo Ark project includes several books available in the gift shop that help teach about the animals and support the project going forward.
“Think about the story of Noah’s Ark, where Noah saved the animals two by two,” Ladrick said. "Sartore’s documenting as many species as he can.”
Museum and garden hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday through December. January to March, the galleries building is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Trails on the property are open 7 a.m. to dusk.
Tickets to the museum and gardens are $15 for adults, $10 for seniors and $10 for ages 13 to 17.
MSV members and children 12 and younger get in free. The museum also offers free admission on Wednesdays. Trails on the property and the first floor of the museum, including the museum shop, may be accessed for free.
Associated upcoming programs are a Lunch and Learn Webinar on Wildlife Conservation from noon to 1 p.m. Oct. 21 and the Trails Photo Walk for adults from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 24.
Photo Ark programs will also continue in November and December.
For more information, call 540-662-1472, ext. 235, or visit theMSV.org.