JOPLIN, Mo. —
The hunt for a photograph of a Columbian sharp-tailed grouse had led Noppadol Paothong to a snow-covered field in central Wyoming. It was 10 degrees outside, and the snow -- eight feet deep in some places -- had already claimed his snowmobile.
Lugging his camera equipment along with him, Paothong made his way more than a mile on foot, at one point having to dig himself out after falling through the snow and getting his foot stuck.
As the snow continued to fall, he set up his blind and waited.
Despite the weather, his quarry appeared, dancing atop the snow while Paothong began taking pictures. The field was their booming grounds and, weather be damned, they were there to perform their unique ritual in the hopes of attracting a mate.
Looking back, Paothong says the moment he captured was one that was worth every difficult moment it took to get it.
“The snow was flying all around them and they were still dancing,” he says. “It’s a one-of-a-kind photo, and it makes me look back and say that it was worth it.”
The images he took that day in 2011 are among those featured in “Save the Last Dance: A Story of North American Grassland Grouse.” Released earlier this month, the book chronicles a vanishing species in their natural habitat.
But it’s also the story of the lengths that Paothong was willing to go -- nearly 70,000 miles of travel through 14 states over an 11-year period -- to bring the birds’ beauty and dwindling numbers to a larger audience.
‘No book like this’
A native of Bangkok, Thailand, Paothong’s interest in nature photography began when he was in high school, but he never thought it was something that he would be able to make a living at.
He came to the United States in 1993. After completing an English program, he enrolled as a graphic arts major at North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where he also began taking photos for the school’s newspaper. In 1998, he was offered a scholarship to Missouri Southern State University. There, he served as photo editor for The Chart and graduated with a communications degree in 2001.
He worked as a staff photographer for The Joplin Globe from 1999 until 2004, and the following year for The Springfield News Leader.
Since 2006, he has worked as a photographer for the Missouri Department of Conservation, his nature images appearing in the pages of The Missouri Conservationist.
“Save the Last Dance” is a passion project that began 11 years ago. While shooting photos in Golden City in March 2001, he took a picture of a prairie chicken, which is a species of bird in the grouse famiy.
“I didn’t think much of it at the time,” Paothong says, but soon began researching the bird and learned that not many are left in Missouri.
“The species of bird I photographed in Golden City no longer exists,” he says.
As he learned more about prairie chickens and began taking more photographs of them, the idea of publishing a book of his pictures began to take shape.
“About my third year, I realized this project was going to be important,” he says. “There was no book like this out there, and could bring great attention to the bird.”
His travels took him from that snowy field in Wyoming to booming fields in Texas to capture images of the Attwater’s prairie chicken, and to Martha’s Vinyard, where he researched the extinct heath hen. In his book, he relates the story of “Booming Ben,” the last surviving heath hen photographed in 1932 as it returned all alone to its booming grounds, performing a solo dance that would never be reciprocated.
“That’s part of what make (prairie chickens) unique. They don’t adapt well to change and come back to the same spot, year after year. That old, black and white photo taken in March of 2002 is a powerful showcase of what extinction looks like,” says Paothong.
His travels and work on the book were done on his own time, kept separate from his work for the conservation department. As the years passed, his portfolio grew, even as he endured storms, flat tires, tornadoes (and fatherhood) along the way.
He began looking into publishing prospects, ultimately deciding that self-publishing “Save the Last Dance” would be the way to go.
But going that route to produce the quality of book that he envisioned wouldn’t be cheap.
'An incredible journey’
Tracking a subject through the digital terrain isn’t terribly difficult, says Wayne Drda.
A retired teacher and researcher with Washington University in St. Louis, he enjoyed the photos he had seen by Paothong in the pages of the monthly Missouri Conservationist.
“I went to his website and looked through more of his pictures, and saw that he gave a lot of credit to people who showed him where to look (for the animals pictured),” says Drda.
When he finally met Paothong in person, he came away even more impressed.
“I was just very, very impressed with the kind of human being that he is. He’s a master photographer, but also a very fine person,” he says.
After talking with Paothong about the “Save the Last Dance” project, he wanted to help get the book off the ground.
“When we talked, I said, ‘Look, I’m more than happy to help you,’” says Drda. “I asked how much he thought it would take to get things moving. My interest and support of him comes from who he is as a person.”
With initial funding in place, Paothong was able to pay for a writer, designer and text editor to get started assembling the book.
“That was the beginning of the project,” says Paothong. “It was a great, great thing that (Drda) did.”
He was able to find additional sponsors for the book, including Pat Jones, the widow of investment broker Edward Jones.
“She’s very big in conservation support,” he says.
Text for the book was penned by Joel Vance, a writer who formerly worked for the conservation department. The forward was provided by Paul Johnsgard, an ornithologist and writer who agreed to lend his support to the project after viewing Paothong’s work.
Divided into eight chapters, his photographs are accompanied by information about the birds, along with their dwindling numbers and habitats. It also includes notes that chronicle what went into getting many of the pictures.
Now that the book is complete, Paothong is able to look back and appreciate the time put in to make it a reality.
“It’s a record to show that (prairie chickens) exist,” he says. “In as little as 10 years, many of the birds in the book might be extinct.
“This whole project has affected me so much. It’s been an incredible, incredible journey and it’s made me approach my subjects a lot different. It’s not just about taking a pretty photo. It’s about taking meaningful photos that tell a story and make people care about what they see. It’s made me a better photographer.”
Nature center event
Photographer Noppadol Paothong will speak about his work at 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 25, at the Wildcat Glades Conservation & Audubon Center. Cost of the event is $45 and includes a signed copy of the 204-page hardbound book. If a copy of the book has already been purchased, the program is only $5 to attend. For reservations, call 417-782-6287.
For more information about the book, visit www.savethelastdancebook.com.