Rethinking the Archive of Black Visual Culture with Deborah Willis

Mr. SOUL! – a discussion about the first Black “tonight show” hosted by the late activist Ellis Haizlip. The conversation, sponsored by The Institute of African American Affairs + Center for Black Visual Culture, will be led by filmmakers Melissa Haizlip and Sam Pollard on December 13th. (all images courtesy NYU Center for Black Visual Culture)

Deborah Willis, a curator, photographer, and academic, has established herself as a leading scholar of photography and Black studies. Having authored the book Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present (among other prolific essays) and co-producing the documentary Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a Peopleshe is known internationally as an expert and advocate of Black photographic history.

Willis recently took directorship of NYU’s Institute of African American Affairs, where she is also a professor in the Department of Photography & Imaging. In conjunction with her new position, and utilizing her extensive and expert knowledge, Willis founded a Center for Black Visual Culture, an unprecedented academic resource for visual politics, to fuse the two disciplines.

Deborah Willis and Manthia Diawara, the former Director of the NYU Institute of African American Affairs

Her goal is an interdisciplinary space “really considering the way that people are talking about how Black visual culture has framed their own history and their interests.” Willis says, “I want to create a forum for open discussion; I want us to think about how we create … I want everyday people to walk into NYU to contribute to a discussion about their experiences.”

Under the Center for Black Visual Culture, she is teaching the course “The Black Body and the Lens,” where graduate and undergraduate students consider the visual archive of African American history and reconsider historical aesthetics as a means of understanding contemporary culture and counteracting racial stereotypes. Willis herself researches cultural iconographies of gender and race woven throughout this archive to formulate new and creative understandings of modern society and its complicated narratives.

One of the most actionable impacts of the Center is its extensive programming, inviting speakers from across disciplines to engage in public conversations and performances surrounding visual politics and Black aesthetics. This, along with the exhibition cit.i.zen.ship: reflections on rights (curated by Deborah Willis and Lorie Novak), expands the scope of the Center to invite people from outside of NYU’s campus to engage in these conversations. Upcoming events are listed here.

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Jasmine Weber: What was your intention in founding the Center for Black Visual Cultural as a complement to the Institute of African American Affairs?

Deborah Willis: I thought it was really important to think about what’s going on today with the archive of images that focus on Black culture — which circulate from memes, to images that explore critical narratives of Black Lives Matter, to advertising images. I thought it would be a great opportunity to start placing the archive and history with contemporary stories. I wanted to explore this by finding new ways to talk about the archive of Black images. We are aware of the range of digital culture and how contemporary artists are incorporating stories from new media, such as television shows and live streaming shows, so, how are we talking about it?

The important thing for me is how we create a national discussion about images that are difficult to talk about, and images we are embracing. That’s why I wanted to look at contemporary photography, art photography, memes, as well as the history of photography within this framework.

JW: What is the significance of a Center for Black Visual Culture in an academic setting? What set the precedent for this sort of institute to develop?

DW: I think just the idea of: how do we talk nationally and internationally about the concept of the portrait? How do we think about the experience of memory, from 19th-century images to 21st-century images? We are using a university setting to explore images from the 19th century, looking from slavery to today. I thought having a Center to begin to collect images online, as well as having a place where students can research these stories, was necessary.

Aisha Conte, “Book.worm”

JW: How do these ideas expand outside the academic sphere to reach outside of NYU and enter the surrounding communities, nationally, and internationally?

DW: We have a “Future Image Makers” high school program. We invite students, and they are there making images. They use our equipment, they have critical discussions about what’s going on in the news and what’s going on in their communities, they take their cameras home, and they talk about life in the Bronx, and Brooklyn, and LES, and Harlem. Many of them are immigrants. They have the opportunity to not only write their own narratives but also make images about their experiences. That’s something to consider — why it’s important that we have this Center, but as people that teach in photo and imaging, we have this opportunity to collapse these two experiences.

In an exhibition that Lorie Novak and I curated, called cit.i.zen.ship: reflections on rights, we have over 35 high school students who are between the ages of 13 and 17 in the exhibition. I’m amazed by their experiences. One young woman [Aisha Conte] made a photograph of herself wearing a headwrap but also with all of the books she’s reading — from contemporary African writers, to contemporary writers here in America, to James Baldwin. When asked, “Is this because in your culture you carry things on your head?” she says: “Not only on our heads, but also in my mind.” I thought to have a creative photograph like that — to think about what’s on her mind — that was just amazing.

She talks very freely and openly about why it was important for her to take a photography class; even if she might not major in photography, she understands representation. Even though some of the members of her family can’t vote, she wants to talk about politics so she can inform people who can vote, to understand her plight and her experiences so they can vote in a conscious way about rights and immigration. That’s why I think this is important, and why the Center and the Department of Photography and Imaging work together, because of these projected narratives and implied narratives about Black people.

JW: Earlier, you mentioned looking at memes as valid stakeholders in the visual archive. With memes becoming a form of artistic and cultural production, which often go under-recognized as such, how is the Center planning to engage with this rapidly-consumable form of culture, to expand our modern notions of Black visual culture and what it can be?

DW: What I hope is to have more conversations. I want to create a forum for scholars, writers, and pop culture activists to unpack these visual stories and how memes are used by both Black and white, and people from other cultures, who are looking at the culture of Black people to consider these “moments of performance” through the digital. Having the opportunity to talk about them, but also having the opportunity to have a conference or have workshops and panels to talk about representation and to investigate the meaning today — we know through music, we know through how images are re-appropriated and used in history. Artists can retell the story and think about the implications of the visibility of Black people, and the notion of hyper-visibility, so these are the moments I’d love to explore, not only through panel discussions but also through performance, like dance and other ways to create discussions.

JW: It feels like the social media boom has allowed for this stage to be set, where Black cultural production is at the forefront of the media and culture we consume. This has always been the case, but we now have a more amplified and readily-available source.  I’m interested to hear if that is in any way a struggle for the Center, or if it works in your favor. It, of course, can straddle a tricky line when Black culture seems like it’s ready for anyone to grab at.

DW: I totally agree. You pointed out that hard negotiation — it is not only a tricky line, it’s a slippery line, in terms of how we begin to consider this. We are interested in people who are critical thinkers to look at the Black body, to look at the internet and aspects of looking at Black culture, but then we have people who can use this against the experience of writing new writings without being informed of the history of negative images — just as with the history of Blackface. As we heard recently, it’s okay for Meagan Kelly to say that, she felt it was okay, but she doesn’t know the history or the effects of Blackface on Black culture, or what happened in the 19th century. And Bert Williams — in terms of, if you want to play the role, you have to know the experiences of Black people. But just to have Black people as the object of ridicule is not okay. And how do we talk about it? We talk about it through contemporary culture, we reflect upon it through the classroom and literature, and that’s why it’s important to have the center and these classrooms and space for critical engagement.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

cit.i.zen.ship: reflections on rights continues through January 18, 2019, at the Department of Photography & Imaging Galleries, NYU Tisch School of the Arts (721 Broadway Lobby & 8th floor). The exhibition was curated by Deborah Willis and Lorie Novak.

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LGBTQ Tours Offer a New Way of Looking at an Old Museum

"The Renaissance City" (1350–1600), (photo by Alan Williams Photography, image courtesy the Victoria & Albert Museum)
“The Renaissance City” (1350–1600) (photo by Alan Williams Photography, image courtesy the Victoria & Albert Museum)

A visitor to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum would find it hard to miss the six-and-a-half-foot-tall statue of Samson slaying a Philistine that stands near the museum’s main entrance. With its tangle of frenzied bodies, the marble sculpture is a testament to sixteenth-century Flemish sculptor Giambologna’s sense of drama and eye for detail. Once in the possession of the Spanish king, the piece came to England after the Prince of Wales (the future Charles I) received it in 1623 as a present and passed it along to his traveling companion, John Villiers. Villiers was a close friend of Charles’s father, James I — and also, many historians believe, his lover.

Explaining this story to us is Morag Cuthbert, a volunteer with the V&A’s LGBTQ tours program. Taking place on the last Saturday of each month, the tours are free to all and aim to uncover the queer histories of the objects in the museum’s collection. On the day of my visit, the start point has enough of a crowd to sustain four large groups simultaneously.

Casts Courts installation view and the Victoria & Albert Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Casts Courts installation view at the Victoria & Albert Museum (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

After the groups have been divided, Morag shepherds us to the Cast Courts, the two large halls that house scale plaster replicas of Western masterworks once used to train artists. At the foot of a copy of Michelangelo’s “David” — given as a diplomatic gift to Queen Victoria, who was allegedly so scandalized by the statue’s nudity that the museum was forced to add a fig leaf — our guide regales us with tidbits from Renaissance art history that would undoubtedly have shocked the museum’s famously prudish namesake. For instance, Michelangelo wrote a considerable body of love poetry addressed to men, a fact that the artist’s grandnephew attempted to expunge from the record by switching the pronouns. Pointing out that David’s hands are disproportionately large for his body, Morag quips, “If he were a drag queen, it’d be a dead give-away.”

In addition to shining a spotlight on queer artists — or, in the case of the Giambologna sculpture, queer owners — the tours also examine pieces with more easily recognizable connections to LGBTQ history. The museum’s storied costume collection, for instance, features ensembles by iconic performance artist Leigh Bowery and an extravagant Sydney Opera House-shaped hat once worn by prominent Australian drag queen Dame Edna Everage.

The particular tour I attended largely concentrated on Western art and skewed towards the “G” in LGBTQ, which our guide acknowledged, adding that this stemmed largely from the nature of the objects on display. The program is still in development, and as each guide individually crafts their own itineraries (one volunteer on the day I was present said she focuses specifically on women in the LGBTQ community), returnees can still get a chance to trace a completely new route. On the day that I attended, all but one tour was unthemed, and we were divided according to where we stood, given the option, however, of joining the themed tour if we preferred. I chose to remain with the group to which I was originally assigned.

"David" in the Cast Courts at the Victoria & Albert Museum (image via Wikimedia Commons)
Replica of “David” in the Cast Courts at the Victoria & Albert Museum (image via Wikimedia Commons)

The LGBTQ tour program began in 2015, and in 2017, an online version also became available for those unable to make the in-person time slot. Programs like this are part of a larger trend to use museum tours as a way of rupturing habitual narratives of art history and the social structures to which they are bound. Alice Porter, an MA candidate in the anthropology of material culture at University College London, has recently made waves with her “Uncomfortable Art Tours” organized at cultural institutions across London. Her website, which features a portrait of Elizabeth I graffitied over with the word “SLAVER,” explains that the purpose of her tours is to “unravel the role colonialism played in shaping and funding a major national collection.”

“My personal interest in this history,” Morag tells us at the beginning of our journey, “is that it completes the stories of the objects.”

An afternoon with the the LGBTQ guides — whose program has garnered multiple awards — gave the sense that they find their work not only deeply important but also a ton of fun. Half the pleasure of our tour’s exploration of Frederick the Great’s private life was the playful back-and-forth between our guide and another volunteer who happened to be in the same gallery when we walked in.

Earlier last month, program coordinator Dan Vo tweeted that Cambridge University’s museums would soon be launching their own LGBTQ tours as well. Only time will tell what a queer history tour of the Polar Museum will look like, but if the V&A’s model is anything to go on, it’ll be a good time.

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Gertrude Abercrombie

Gertrude Abercrombie (1909–1977) painted gloomy nightscapes and forlorn domestic scenes that revealed her internal state more than the outside world. She also made portraits, landscapes, and still lifes

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Simone Leigh

A ceramic female head crowned by a hollow receptacle met the viewer as she entered Simone Leigh’s exhibition. This hybrid object, 102 (Face Jug Series) (all works cited, 2018), conflates portraiture

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Thick Strokes of Paint Create Featureless Portraits in Abstracted Paintings by Joseph Lee

Los Angeles-based artist and actor Joseph Lee paints thickly layered portraits that mask the details and expressions of his subjects’ faces. His abstracted profiles sometimes reveal a subtle hint of an eye, nose, or ear between multi-colored brushstrokes, and are set against matte backgrounds to make each painting pop. Although the facial expressions are often hidden, the self-taught artist intends to bring emotions to each face through the turn of the head or the line of a jaw. You can see more of his impasto portraits on his website and Instagram.

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A Neorealist Portrait of Black Single Motherhood in Post-Recession Florida

Robert Williams (left) and Regina Williams (far right) star in Life and Nothing More (2018), directed by Antonio Méndez Esparza. (All images courtesy of California Film Institute)

Like the rest of the United States, Florida — hit hard by the economic slump and the housing bust — has seen its ups and downs in the past few years, in turn inspiring a series of notable films about the hardships of America’s working class. There was Shawn Baker’s psychologically forced, color-drenched The Florida Project (a disappointing follow-up to the much-lauded, vibrant Tangerine), Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas’s wonderful, keenly observed documentary short Skip Day, and now, Antonio Méndez Esparza’s astute, quietly vigorous feature Life and Nothing More.

At the film’s opening, in March, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Film Comment Selects series, Esparza, who hails from Spain, explained that, when he found himself unexpectedly living and teaching in Florida, he looked for inspiration in reality, and found his actors at Walmart. The resulting cast, whose most notable members are Regina Williams as Regina and Andrew Bleechington as Andrew, is nothing short of revelatory, a reminder that the delicacy of real-life detail and unscripted scenes can breathe a particular kind of intimacy, a sense of both naturalness and emotional breadth, into fictional cinema.

In the film, Regina is an African-American working mom with a son, Andrew, who is always in minor trouble with the law; she fears he will end up in prison, like his father. We see her in the opening scenes cursing Andrew on the bus, but later, she defends him stoutly at his hearing, where he is being chastised for not showing up for his counseling appointments. This pattern repeats: again and again, Regina’s love proves tough, wounded, desperate, and quick-tempered, yet also unbelievably steady, resilient, and brave. Esparza’s vision of motherhood, as a fortress whose foundations must hold even on the shakiest of grounds, pulls us into a soaring emotional tide, and keeps us entranced, marveling at Williams’s talent and charm as a non-professional actor.

Regina Williams in Life and Nothing More

Esparza didn’t originally intend to include the incarceration of Andrew’s father in his script, but after interviewing Floridian teenagers, he realized that it was a recurring motif in many young people’s lives. He uses the theme obliquely, such as in a scene in which Andrew’s friend (or possibly uncle) tells him a joke about a dealer managing to flash dope in front of a cop who is trying to book him for it — and then dispenses advice on staying clean and upright. Such small details fill in the picture of the tug-and-pull between risk and self-preservation, as willful Andrew keeps mostly to himself. We see him often in the company of passing male figures, whose advice is fueled by personal regrets. How much talking to the young can actually change them is one of the underlying questions that Esparza poses, scene after scene. Regina, for her part, is overworked and stressed out. Since she relies on Andrew for babysitting his little sister and for minor housekeeping, she can quickly turn from solicitous to nagging.

Into this delicate scenario walks Regina’s new boyfriend, Robert (played with compelling intensity by Robert Williams), a sweet-talking charmer with strong convictions, but ultimately, yet another fraught paternal figure. It’s telling that Esparza uses a more improvisational style in his work with the actors, one that allows him to bring in details from their personal lives — for example, as he mentioned in the Film Comment Selects interview, Regina reading poetry. His approach echoes other psychologically expansive films, such as Roberto Minervini’s Stop the Pounding Heart (2013) and The Other Side (2015) and Affonso Uchoa and João Dumans’s Araby (2017), all films whose semi-fictional scenarios draw heavily from real-life situations and, most importantly, the conflicts and tensions suggested and enlivened by the protagonists.

Andrew Bleechington in Life and Nothing More

In Life and Nothing More, Robert and Regina make a winsome on-screen pair, and their slowly burning, tick-for-tat, wisecracking romance provides some of the film’s best scenes. When Robert first tries to pick her up, at a diner where she works, she ends up telling him she’s “just living,” and then, “fuck men,” her sarcastic, know-it-all tone suggesting the underlying sadness that rules her life. Like Uchoa and Dumans, Esparza uses voiceover sparingly yet forcefully, to strengthen our sense of the protagonists’ inner thoughts, particularly Regina’s.

Cinematographer Barba Balasoiu, who worked with Esparza on his previous film, Here and There (2012), exquisitely establishes atmosphere and mood. In Life and Nothing More, he skillfully captures Florida’s makeshift outdoor spaces, cramped, cluttered indoors, and crepuscular, neon-lit diners — a backdrop for heartache Americana-style, where businesses show notable distress, a visual message that pointedly contradicts the “always strive for excellence” motto that Andrew hears from older male companions. Life and Nothing More compellingly illustrates the lives of those trapped in this contradictory landscape, uncertain where else to go.

Life and Nothing More is playing at Film Forum in New York, and starting October 26 it is playing at select locations in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. The film will be released nationally via CFI Releasing.

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Leonardo da Vinci May Have Had a Rare Eye Condition that Affected His Portraits

Anonymous portrait (once claimed to be a self-portrait) of Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1600. Uffizi, Florence (image via Wikimedia Commons)

New research into Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings speculates that the famous Renaissance artist had a rare eye condition which likely facilitated his ability to render three-dimensional faces and objects with a distinct sense of depth-recession.

Dr. Christopher W. Tyler, a research professor at the City University of London and at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco, recently published findings in the peer-reviewed medical journal JAMA Ophthalmology indicating that the artist had intermittent exotropia, a form of strabismus, based upon a scientific review of the artist’s portraits and self-portraits.

Strabismus is a binocular vision disorder characterized by the partial or complete inability to maintain eye alignment on a fixed object. It is usually accompanied by suppression of the deviating eye and consequent two-dimensional monocular vision. Exotropia is a rare form of the disorder that typically manifests as an outward shift of the pupils within the eyelid aperture.

The breadth of Tyler’s research analyzed the geometric angle of eye alignment in Leonardo’s subjects. Based on six artworks (including two sculptures, two oil paintings, and two drawings), the researcher found evidence of skewed ocular angles consistent with signs of the rare eye condition.

Notably, one of the six works that Tyler considered was Salvator Mundi, the painting whose attribution to Leonardo da Vinci has been hotly contested even before it sold at Christie’s’ November 2017 auction for a record $450.3 million. Based on an initial look at Tyler’s research, it’s hard to tell if the painting’s inclusion here enhances attribution claims for art historians, or if it dilutes the researcher’s data set. With so few artworks analyzed, one of questionable authorship certainly casts shade on any definitive conclusions about Leonardo’s eyesight.

Oddly enough, this is not the first time exotropia has been in art news headlines. Over the past few centuries, scientists have claimed that other famous painters have had the same condition, including Rembrandt and Edgar Degas. How this condition affects the formal elements of the artists’ paintings, though, is less clear. Dr. Michael Marmor has written several books on the eye conditions of great painters. He claims, for example, that Degas’ failing vision in old age caused blurry sight, explaining the artist’s shift in style from refined early brushstrokes to a coarser approach later in life. Tyler’s research on Leonardo, by comparison, merely argues about a potential cause of the idiosyncratic facial geometries of his subjects.

Interest in objective analysis of famous painters has proliferated in the last four or five decades. These scientific studies are somewhat reminiscent of — albeit much more rigorous than — Sigmund Freud’s famous 1910 essay psychoanalyzing Leonardo’s paintings as a window into the artist’s childhood.

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Portrait of a Girl in Blue and Pink by Telmo Miel in Haarlem, NL

Dutch art duo Telmo Miel recently spent a couple of days in Haarlem working on a pretty much 1st large mural in this historic city just outside Amsterdam. Invited by the local initiative that is hoping to bring more color and public pieces into the streets, the artists completed this vibrant mixture of classic and modern aesthetic titled Portrait of a Girl in Blue and Pink, or Mona Gaga, as titled by the locals.

While researching for this project Telmo Miel visited the local Frans Hals Museum where they found out about this important work by Haarlem-born artist Johannes Verspronck. Originally titled Girl in Blue Dress this classic portrait from the middle of the 17th century shows a young girl wearing an extravagant adult dress. Since the original piece is nowadays in the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the artists wanted to bring it back to its hometown, but also add some contemporary elements to it. Along with meticulously reproducing the delicate dress painted by the Dutch master, they added an outspoken look of the modern times in the shape of an oversized pink bow and exaggerated sunglasses. The mixture of two time periods and two styles was done in a rough manner, evoking the basic Photoshop intervention, adding further to the extravagance of the finished image.

Haarlem’s latest piece of exceptional street art can be found on a De Kamp garage building in De Witstraat 1, and we’re bringing you a couple of images of the finished piece as well as some process shots.

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Lawsuit Over Warhol’s Portraits of Prince Fuels Debate Over Art and Appropriation

The Andy Warhol Foundation and photographer Lynn Goldsmith both filed cross-motions for summary judgment in a Manhattan federal court last Friday, October 12, reports the |

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Confronting Mass Extinction with Poignant, Intimate Portraits of Animals


LOS ANGELES — Recently, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that mankind has a dozen years left before irreversible, calamitous climate change sets in made waves on social media. Among the many other threats global warming poses to the planet, around half of the world’s estimated 100 million species (most of which remain undiscovered) face extinction. Motivating people to agitate for policy and societal changes to combat this danger is daunting. For decades, Joe Sartore has hoped to raise public consciousness of endangered animals by photographing wildlife for the National Geographic. Since 2005, he has masterminded the Photo Ark, a project with aims to capture portraits of every single animal species living in Earth’s various zoos and nature preserves.

The Photo Ark currently encompasses a wide catalogue of images, with its 8,000th species being photographed this year. (An estimated 12,000 distinct species live in the areas the project focuses on.) It has been put on display in various permutations — coffee table books, documentaries, multimedia events. Now, the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles is hosting an exhibition of selected works from the series.

A springbok mantis (Miomantis caffra) at the Auckland Zoo (Photo by Joel Sartore for the National Geographic Photo Ark)

The exhibit presents around 100 of Sartore’s portraits, along with a wealth of supplemental information. Banners display images of endangered species whose populations are close to being nonviable, along with the number of individuals still alive (usually in the low hundreds). One section gives a behind-the-scenes peek at Sartore’s process for photographing the animals, which involves quickly getting them to stand in a small canvas “tent” or against a white backdrop and snapping a pic as unobtrusively as possible.

The space is designed to emphasize the common plight these animals share, though not all bear the same existential burden (some are endangered, while others are currently less of a concern). A common arctic fox hangs near an endangered newt. The creatures are often framed looking into the camera, and hence there’s a low-key confrontational feel to many of them. A recurring question posed to visitors is how many of these animals they can bear losing to the current age of human-driven mass extinction. 

Twin giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) cubs at Zoo Atlanta. Pandas are held up as an example of species pulled back from the brink of extinction by human efforts. (Photo by Joel Sartore for the National Geographic Photo Ark)

This hits particularly hard in one area, where a wall depicta endlings — the final survivors of an animal species — who have died since Sartore took their pictures. For instance, there’s “Toughie,” the last known Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog, which died in 2016. There’s an unspeakable poignancy to looking at these beings and thinking of their loneliness, and of what’s lost. For them, the Photo Ark’s name is more literal, as it’s the last thing carrying on proof that they ever existed.

Despite the nature of this work, Sartore was surprisingly upbeat when he spoke with me — even about species he’s photographed that have since gone extinct. “It inspires me. It doesn’t depress me. I don’t like it, it pisses me off, but that inspires me … That’s what drives me. Even if it’s not true, I think, ‘This one we’re gonna hold up, and people will realize that it’s epic to throw away anything.’” And this dovetails with his overall vision for the project: “Most politicians and laws are dragged along. The people’s will comes first … We need a sea change in how people see nature … I think that through things like this, that are entertaining and fun and not too depressing, we can see that.”

An endangered Java peafowl (Pavo muticus muticus) at the Houston Zoo (photo by Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark)

National Geographic Photo Ark continues at the Annenberg Space for Photography (2000 Avenue of the Stars #10, Los Angeles) through January 19, 2019.

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