Amphibious ambition: Sartore leaps on the cause

Joel Sartore's photograph of Gordon's purple mossy frogs.
Joel Sartore's photograph of Gordon's purple mossy frogs.

When I was little, my family spent summers in a rustic cabin by a lake in Maine. There were no kids my age, so I spent all day, every day playing with frogs.

These days, frog mutations and die-offs serve as ecological fire alarms– microcosmic disasters with macrocosmic implications. But the child in me mostly feels sad about the frogs themselves– a sentiment shared by photographer Joel Sartore, whose exhibition, “The Vanishing,” is on view at the McGuffey Art Center as part of Look3, Festival of the Photograph.

In the preamble to the show, Sartore explains that, in addition to habitat destruction and pollution, a virulent fungus is currently laying waste to amphibian populations around the world. To highlight the loss, Sartore has created a series of oversized color portraits that showcase species’ quirks, charms, and, yes, beauty.

Sartore removes his subjects from their natural context and shoots them against stark backgrounds of either white or black. The lack of distracting details enables the viewer to focus on the myriad variations in skin patterns, body shapes, facial expressions, and even eye colors. In each case, Sartore’s aesthetic choices accentuate the animal’s individual personality.

For instance, in the image of Gordon’s purple mossy frogs, a species found in Southeast Asia, twin knobby-skinned beasts curl up on their backs “playing dead,” one crisply in focus in the foreground and one diffuse-edged and out of focus in the background. Sartore balances the frame by placing the little creatures’ purplish black and orange bodies on the right and left, with the white-flecked black eye of the front frog wide-open and vigilant at the center.

In contrast, the face-forward image of a Suro Stream frog makes it seem as if the mottled grey and chartreuse beast with bulbous white toes is about to jump out of the picture and befriend the viewer. The expression on the frog’s face reads as charmingly curious. Even Sartore’s weirdest amphibian subjects, the worm-like Caecilium and the Eastern Ozark Hellbender (beautifully hung so their arcing bodies mirror each other), are wondrous seen through his lens.

Exquisitely presented, the printed-on-canvas photographs hang by simple wooden runners at top and bottom. A sobering shot suspended in the middle of the gallery punctuates the show. Belly-up corpses of Mountain yellow-legged frogs litter a stream in a California national park. Amid the irresistible portraits, it’s utterly heartbreaking. And that’s the point.

Joel Sartore’s exhibition, “The Vanishing,” is on display through June 28 at the McGuffey Art Center as part of Look3, Festival of the Photograph. 201 Second St. NW. 977-3687.