White Oak Conservation Center – Arts and the Environment
45 miles north of Jacksonville, on border of Florida and Georgia along the St. Mary’s River, lay 7000 acres of pristine woodlands and fields. Housed on this compound is an amazing assortment of animals, studios, and a wildlife conservation center. This is White Oak, home to white rhinos, giraffes, okapis, cheetahs, and the Baryshnikov Dance Studio. I was asked by Cinda Sherman of Arbus Magazine to accompany her to view the Jacksonville University MFA dance troop completing a week long summer retreat. It was my first time to White Oak, although I’ve heard about the animals many times. I did not connect Annie Leibovitz’s famous “White Oak Dance Project” with this location. Here she photographed Baryshnikov and other famous dancers back in the 90’s. I was feeling the power of the place. I also met dance legend David Parsons. The facility is quite amazing but the combination of environmental and arts advocacy is what struck me as unique. And to know that this center is so close to Jacksonville! More on White Oak can be found here. I’m thankful that the Gilman family chose to invest in such a project.
The morning was spent photographing the dancers as they went through a warm-up and choreography exercise. The room was quite large and I brought 2 Speedlights. I really didn’t know what to expect and needed to travel light. I set one up on opposites sides of the dance floor and just worked them from there. I wanted to be as unobtrusive as possible. I have gained quite an appreciation for dance and enjoy the energy and flowing controlled movement of the dancers. It is beautiful to watch. I find a great aesthetic to how the individual bodies and arms, torsos, and legs are moved into positions and then as each dancer makes contact and positions themselves in proximity to the other dancers, the composition becomes alive. This is fascinating.
After about an hour of photography we were given a tour of the okapi area, only one of several breeding centers for endangered and threatened animals. We got to be up close and personal with a group of okapis, gentle animals related to the giraffe but partially striped like a zebra.
I was exhausted after the day, but totally inspired not only by the dancers but by the history of the facility for dance, photography, and conservation. What a legacy. I also found and ordered Leibovitz’s White Oak book on eBay. Can’t wait to get it.