COLUMBIA — The unsettling image of a hand holding up a photograph of a small, chicken-like bird in front of an empty prairie shows the last location where the heath hen was seen in the wild.
The last of that species of grassland grouse died in 1932, and the seven other species featured in Noppadol Paothong's photographs may not have much time left. Paothong estimates the species he photographs could be extinct in less than 10 years.
"We need to do something before it's too late," he said.
For 11 years, Paothong traveled more than 80,000 miles over 14 states to document different kinds of North American grassland grouse. The result of Paothong's long journey is a photo book, authored by outdoor writer Joel Vance and entitled "Save the Last Dance: A Story of North American Grassland Grouse."
Images from the book, as well as some of Paothong's older photographs, are currently showing at the Montminy Gallery in the Walters-Boone County History Museum.
Cathy Salter, chairperson of the Montminy Art Committee, helped to bring Paothong’s work to the gallery. She said she often kept copies of the Missouri Conservationist, where Paothong has worked as a staff photographer for the past six years, for his photographs.
“You know the minute you look at them they’re his,” she said. “He has this kind of following.”
But it's a following Paothong would like to see expand. He wants to bring his photographs to conservation groups across the nation to raise awareness about the birds' decline. He said he has plans to approach major museums, not just art galleries, to be able to share the message of the work with a broader audience.
Through his work, Paothong has grown to appreciate the interesting rituals and habits exhibited by the grouse. During mating season, the males dance in an effort to attract mates, which is where the book's title came from.
Paothong said he tries to go beyond the typical "pretty picture" associated with nature photos. He instead takes a more in-depth look at the subject, offering readers a look at his own experience through his years of working on the grouse project.
Wildlife photography is not an easy job, Paothong said. He’s often in place in his blind as early as 4 or 5 a.m. Temperatures range depending on where he’s shooting, but in the northern states they could easily be below zero. His exposed fingers have been threatened by frostbite, and he’s no stranger to all sorts of bug bites.
To reflect that, Paothong wrote “field notes” that are interspersed throughout the pages, and they tell the stories behind the photos.
The book also includes maps that show just how much the grouses' territories have shrunk.
“The grassland is struggling just as much as the forests,” Paothong said, emphasizing the lack of awareness about the state of the prairie as a major obstacle in saving the habitat of the grouses. "Private landowners need to keep the habitats intact."
Paothong has received many awards over his career, from placing in the Pictures of the Year International competition to being named Missouri Photojournalist of the Year by the Missouri Press Association. He freelances outside of his job at the Missouri Department of Conservation, and his photography has appeared in magazines such as National Wildlife, Audubon and Field & Stream.
Paothong’s photography exhibit will be showing in the Montminy Gallery until the end of August. A reception to celebrate the publishing of the new book is scheduled for Aug. 3 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the same location.
Supervising editor is Celia Darrough.