Photographer James Balog Captures the Plight of Endangered Species with a Stark and Startling Eye

updated 12/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

It was the end of a November day in 1986, and Jim Balog was finishing up a photography shoot at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. As he loaded equipment into a pickup truck, an Indian rhinoceros ambled over and stopped. " 'It was 45 minutes before sunset," says Balog, 38. "This fabulous golden California sunlight was streaming down. The rhino came up and plunked his head on the side wall of the truck about a yard away. We sat there looking at each other, eyeball-to-eyeball, for about 15 minutes. Suddenly, bam! I got the idea for the book right there."

Four years later, the idea has become a reality. Published last month, Balog's Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife contains portraits of 63 endangered or protected species. In conjunction with Survivors ' publication, a show of Balog's work opened at New York City's International Center of Photography Midtown last week and is also traveling around the country and in Europe. "When I first saw the pictures, I was taken aback," says Thomas Kennedy, photography editor of National Geographic; which underwrote part of the project. "Jim's vision is unusual and at the same time incredibly compelling."

Over the course of two years, Balog scoured the planet, capturing 233 animals from 96 endangered or protected species, all the way from Himalayan black bears to Atlantic green sea turtles to the Humboldt penguin. Instead of concentrating his efforts in national parks and preserves, Balog sought out zookeepers and animal trainers. "A lot of zoos have a wide variety of endangered species," he says. "The challenge was to find an individual of the right species tame enough to work with."

Balog approached the animals with two goals. "First, I wanted to strip away normal visual distractions so that people could look at the animals as aesthetic sculptural forms,"" he says. "And secondly, I wanted to correct a romantic illusion perpetuated by wildlife photography that these animals are living happily in some idyllic landscape. I wanted to show that these animals are now alien on this planet. They are not living happily ever after."

In setting up his pictures, Balog appropriated techniques from contemporary advertising photography—stylized backdrops, strobe lights—that would suggest an environment of extinction. "The process was unpredictable and intense," he says. "It was like one of those old-time tops where you wind up the string, let it go and follow it around the room."

Balog developed his sensitivity to nature's fragility as a boy growing up in Watchung, N.J. The son of a Wall Street financier and a housewife, Jim remembers his neighborhood evolving from a rural area filled with orchards and vegetable farms into a bedroom community of New York City. "I have vivid memories of playing around the shattered remains of giant oak trees." he says. "The smell of bulldozer grease and oil mixed in with dirt."

Balog went to Boston College, where he studied photography and filmmaking and took up mountain climbing in his spare time. "My parents thought photography was a pretty bizarre thing to pursue, and they didn't much care for mountain climbing either," he says. Between ascents of Mount McKinley and climbs in the Himalayas, Balog moved to Boulder, Colo., where he pursued still photography. In 1976 he married artist Karen Breunig; they had a daughter, Simone, now 2, before separating this year.

Balog published a photographic examination of big-game hunting in 1984 called Wildlife Requiem. He admits that Survivors is an artistic reappraisal of many of his assumptions about the world. "Ultimately," he says, "these photographs express something about our time, about the human condition and about our planet undergoing rapid transformation. For me, it's an attempt to express a sense of sadness, of loss."

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