With her latest and stunning book of photographs, Susan Middleton ’70 portrays tiny ocean creatures in a way that opens up the whole blessed world anew.
It’s no exaggeration to say that, in her latest photography project in book form, Susan Middleton limns the world in ways it’s never been seen. The book is Spineless: Portraits of Marine Invertebrates, the Backbone of Life (Abrams/Chronicle Books, 2014). Before Middleton photographed some of the critters who spin and slither and dance across the pages, they weren’t even known to science.
Readers of Santa Clara Magazine got to know them through a feature in our Spring 2009 edition, which captured some of Middleton’s work in progress on this gorgeous and important project. Likewise, visitors to SCU’s de Saisset Museum (where Middleton herself interned as a student) got to see the photographs big and up close a few years ago in the exhibit Life Cycle.
With Spineless—labor of love and art and science—now out in hardback, it’s been marvelous to see the attention it has drawn since publication in October—from the New York Times to Wired to Smithsonian to CNN. It’s especially gratifying since the miniscule life forms that Middleton photographs in fact make up 98 percent of the species in the ocean.
Here’s an excerpt of an interview with Middleton about this epic project.
SCM: As much as you isolate the creatures and plants you photograph, they don't become removed from the greater sense of creation.
Middleton: They are the exemplars of creation, to me. I love reading a well-written book, but I'm very visual. And our culture is so visual; we've been trained to be visual. That also presents a challenge, because we're inundated with images continuously. That's not lost on why I work the way I do. I want images that are graphically strong. I want images that have a variety of feelings.
SCM: You grew up in the Northwest.
Middleton: In Seattle. My dad loved to fish, so we were oftentimes out on the Olympic Peninsula, salmon fishing. He had an incredible garden, and we had a creek in the backyard with a salmon run. That's why it's nice, now, to go up to Friday Harbor: I get out of the car, and I breathe in, and it's like a second childhood. Some of the marine creatures, like the jellyfish, I remember seeing when I was a kid. Most of these that I'm photographing now are all new to me. I'm learning that you couldn't see them.
We need to see some of what's out there, better understand our oceans. For example, working in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, I learned about marine debris firsthand; it's not neatly cleaned up and put out of sight. It's there—on every single one of those atolls, there's tons of junk on the beach: plastic, TV sets, big pieces of plastic cushiony stuff from producing flip-flops. When they cut the foot form out, there are big pieces of plastic with all these foot forms cut out. You see those on the beach.
You see the junk coming from the floating gyres. The lesson there for me was, first: Nowhere in the world is remote anymore. The Hawaiian Archipelago is, geographically, the most remote archipelago on the planet; there are no continents anywhere nearby. One would think that it would be more pristine. You go out to the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which is an amazing sanctuary for wildlife, yet there's so much debris out there, and it's human debris. Way out there, and nobody even lives out there.
Sometimes I'll show pictures of the beaches strewn with all this junk, and people say, “Wow, how many people live out there?” Nobody. It's all coming from the oceans.
The oceans are so key to our own survival. For a long time, we thought they were places where we could just dump stuff and that they were inexhaustible: Out of sight, out of mind. That's not the case.
On some of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) vessels that I've been on, there have been scientists who are studying ocean acidification and taking water samples up and down the water column. They're terrified because of how acidified the oceans already are. Acidic water melts anything that's calcium-based—a hermit crab's house, another invertebrate's shell.
Most invertebrates depend on calcium for their exoskeleton, or even for their skeleton inside, in the case of cuttlefish. All the urchins. That's what I say in the hermit crab film I produced. I don't like the idea of a world without hermit crabs. What a great, resilient adaptation they exhibit, and how beautiful they are, and how diverse. Everybody's kind of intrigued with hermit crabs. But they're threatened by ocean acidification.
Part of my hope is that revealing some of the inhabitants of the world under the waves will help people understand that there's a lot of life there—and we're really connected to it. We're part of this. We're connected to these creatures. I think of them as next of kin. We don't have to just think of ourselves as the evil, bad, nasty demons. We're the protectors, too, and we're the appreciators. We're the only ones who can actually turn this around.
But it's hard. People need to feel inspired. And the way to feel inspired is to feel connected to life itself. Life is what's inspiring, and life is inherently divine. There are so many forms of life, and so many ways that it reveals itself. And they're all like God-given manifestations, exemplars: life at its most beautiful.
And fun. Some of them are kind of amusing.
We're all in this together, on the planet. If they go, it's not going to be a very happy situation for us. But if we don't know about them, then we end up being impoverished. Because they bring a great deal of delight.
SCM: Delight was the first word that came to mind for me, actually, when I sat down with my son to look at the marine invertebrates. There is that delight of discovery, as well as the humor, the beauty, the unexpectedness.
Middleton: Really unexpected. And that's inherent in the world of invertebrates—terrestrially, too. We don't see them much, especially the marine ones—we don't really see them at all. So there's much more potential for discovery as a photographer, photographing these kinds of animals, than beautiful reef fish; those fish are very impressive, I love seeing them—but I'm not really interested in them as a photographer. A lot of photographers have photographed them. We did quite a bit of it in the archipelago, but that's been covered. This realm is so different; I'm the only one who has photographed a number of these species, and certainly with the attention.
SCM: And the patience.
Middleton: And the kind of ridiculous, obsessive thing that I bring to it. The series Spineless is not just a collection of individual photographs. It's really representative of the biodiversity in the marine environment: these spineless creatures, that most people are less aware of, but that are so absolutely crucial to how life works—not just in the sea but in the world. They're just as important as anything else.
It's kind of an exciting thing, as a photographer, to be able to reveal that. People are used to seeing seals or beautiful tropical fish. They're much less used to seeing an image of a marine plant—or a delicate, pink nudibranch—or a flatworm.
I'm very passionate about octopuses, because they're the smartest marine invertebrate. They're extremely intelligent. They can move really quickly, they can change color, they can change texture—talk about resilience and brilliant adaptation for survival. They're one of the most successful marine animals. And they also have eyes that look right back at you. Someone's home there.
They're also brilliant escape artists—hence the "octopus crossing" sign in my studio. Because the one that I was photographing on one of the NOAA vessels kept getting out of its five-gallon bucket, crawling across the floor. A crewman would come out and say, “Susan, your octopus got loose again!” So we had to wrangle it back. They made the sign for me.
Working in the French Frigate Shoals in the Hawaiian Archipelago, one of the things that gets driven home is how little is known. You'd think that more would be known than is about marine animals, especially when you get into this realm of the invertebrates. But it's more often that a new species to science is discovered when you look closely—and how small you go is where the new species start revealing themselves.
How she shoots
SCM: So how do you actually photograph them—for example, the white background with the deepwater crab. Is that a technique, or is it done afterward?
Middleton: No, no, no, no, it's not done afterward. Believe me, if you could do it afterward and it would really work, it would be easier. But if you do it that way, the edges look very cut out. Because the light wraps around the creatures. There are actually little portrait studios that are set up for each and every one of these. For example, with the deepwater crab, you can see the shadow underneath. He's standing on a piece of white plex inside an aquarium that's lit from above. There's also a piece of white plex behind in the aquarium, which is lit from behind, which creates the white background. That way you don't see any shadows anywhere, except for underneath, because he looks like he's standing on something, which he is. I don't want him to be totally floating.
But the thing that's tricky with the white plex background is that you're lighting it from behind to get it to be white. Otherwise, it would just be gray. But if you over-light it, it'll blow out the detail and the contrast. So it has to be just to the point where it's white and not an ounce over. And that's what's cool about digital, because white is 255; you just keep going until it gets there. Then you also have to have it a distance from the actual subject. Because otherwise, the flare will wrap around, which I don't want.
One of the things that I like about photography is that you can't tell in a photograph how big things are. So you can play tricks. Most of the marine invertebrates are small. What I'm trying to do is make everything look heroic and monumental.
One thing that I do in terms of my work is I attach myself to experts. That's where the science comes in. They help guide me in terms of not only my knowledge but in terms of what I photograph. They provide access, they make recommendations.
When I'm in the field, I attach myself to a field biologist, a botanist, or a marine biologist who kind of paves my way. But then when I'm photographing, it's not scientific documentation that I'm doing. It's something different. You get the best cooperation when you're working with invertebrate biologists. They're so thrilled that you love their creatures. Mostly, people just pass these kinds of plants and animals by; even if you went snorkeling or diving, you wouldn't be able to see them. They're too small, they're cryptic, they're excellent at camouflage. So these scientists get pretty excited about trying to help me make it happen.
French Frigate Shoals
SCM: Many of the photos in Spineless come from your expedition to the French Frigate Shoals backed by NOAA. What was a typical day like on board the ship there?
Middleton: There was an incredible work ethic on that trip, because it was three and a half weeks long. Every day there were divers who were going out, collecting things in various little containers to bring back into five-gallon buckets. They were using a variety of techniques to collect, including deepwater lobster traps, so they could bring up stuff from very, very deep. Also, there were suction devices they would use to get critters that lived in the sand and the sediment.
They were really exploring a whole variety of habitats in all levels of the water column. That was going on during the day.
Occasionally, I'd be diving—but only occasionally. That was for me to be able to understand what the marine environment was like and to take some contextual photographs. But mostly, what my day would involve is standing in a very small space, where I had my studio setup.
I have different sizes of little Plexiglas and glass trays, little aquariums in different sizes, my tripod, my camera, lighting. I'm usually handholding the light, because I don't want it to be direct-flash; I'm very fussy about that. These are portraits. You can't do a direct-flash for a portrait. It has to be beautiful.
So I'm there working with the animals as they're being brought to me. There's a lot of pressure, because typically, the animals have to go back to where they came from. And if the ship is moving to another location, the animals have to be returned before the ship moves.
In the case of many of the things that were brought in at French Frigate Shoals, the scientists were preparing collections. They needed to do that in order to identify and get the DNA samples and do the sequencing.
Even with that, there was a lot of pressure on me. I'll never forget Gustav Paulay. He's a brilliant guy. He kept coming up and going, “Well, Sue, what happened to that octopus? I don't want it to be pickled in anything but pristine condition.” I was working with it for a couple of days, it was so beautiful. As I mentioned, it kept getting loose. I really wanted to set it free, actually. So did a number of the other divers—women, especially—because it was so beautiful, and we became very fond of it. It was heartbreaking to think about it going into a jar with alcohol.
So my day usually would feel by turns pressured, then ecstatic—because once I would start photographing, amazing things often happened, like with one of the shrimp. It was kind of all hunkered down in the bottom of the aquarium for the first 45 minutes. And then suddenly, it stood up. And I moved the angle of my camera even lower, so I was kind of looking up at it, and it just was so beautiful. It arranged itself.
These animals don't respond to direction, whereas a person does. You can say, “Would you please put your hand here, or fold your arms? Smile.” But with this kind of photography, you have to wait and observe, and get a sense of what the range of gestures can be, then be ready.
Sometimes people would come by and say, “How did you get that shrimp to do that?” I said, “You know better than that. I can't do that, I'm just patient.” Because the scientists do a different kind of photography. They're interested in recording for informational purposes. They like to make it quick. None of these pictures are quick.
SCM: You’ve mentioned getting the color as intense as it really is one of the hardest things. What else is hard?
Middleton: How small they are. They aren't all really small, but some of them are. Then there's movement—octopus, oh, my God. Then, for a photograph, I'll want the eye of the octopus open, and he's saying, “Nope, not going to open my eye.” A lot of these guys move really fast; they didn't adopt the gestures I caught for more than a split second.
The fact that you're shooting in an aquarium is difficult. The graphic simplicity of the images belies the technical complexity involved in making them. Because you have to shoot through glass. The white background is another thing: I don't want any shadows, but I don't want to cut the contrast in the subject itself. So I have to be careful how far the subject is from the background. And then I want a shadow in places where there's an animal sitting on something.
A lot of these are sort of diaphanous, so the light transmits through, which is so beautiful. But the biggest challenge is really trying to do right by them—to render them in a photograph in a way that does justice to what I see.
SCM: What's the most important thing that you bring to this work?
Middleton: Patience is the single most important element. Being willing to wait. That's been a life lesson for me.
There's a certain amount that you need to control as much as you can, especially technically. Then, at a certain point, I have to pull back and observe. Sometimes I'll watch for quite a long time before I ever take even one picture. Sometimes I'll have to relight it. I'll think, I don't know, the idea I had for lighting this is not really the best way of lighting this. Sometimes I'll have a session with an animal, and I'll look at the pictures afterward, and I'll think, I want to do this a different way. If I'm lucky, I'll have a second opportunity; I don't always.
It's a huge exercise in seeing. Especially when you're dealing with things that are normally not seen: They're under the surface of the water, they're hiding in the marine environment, they tend to be small, they try to protect themselves. So it trains your eyes, and it trains your sensibility about pulling back and allowing the subject to reveal itself, and then trying to kind of catch that. It's more of a collaboration.
It's that way when you do a portrait of a person, too. With a good portrait of a person, that always has to be part of what goes on.
That's another thing I learned working for Richard Avedon. He did think of it as a collaboration. You know, he's observing.
With people, we all have an idea of how we want to look, right? With these marine animals, they don't come in with an attitude—though they are going through a trauma at first. That's an aspect of the photography: You have to wait long enough so that the response that you're getting from the animal isn't totally defensive. These are all animals from the wild, none of them are zoo creatures. Suddenly they're put in this tank. Usually, they hunker down; often they are hiding in their shell. And I have to wait for sometimes 45 minutes for them to even poke a little tiny bit out.
They have to get to the point where they feel less threatened in the environment: Okay, I guess I can come out now and check it out. That could be because of curiosity, or it could be: I'm hungry. It could be, Nothing's happened so far, so maybe it's okay. They will then begin to adopt more natural behaviors. And I'm happy to wait for that, because I don't want a photograph of a freaked-out animal.
SCM: How long?
Middleton: The hermit crabs are just terrible. Their lifestyle is in a shell. So their attitude is, Hey, I'm willing to stay inside my shell for a really long time, you know? But then, eventually, you'll see a little claw. And I think: Okay, he's going to come out now. The longest: 45 minutes. Then, if there's a shadow, somebody walks by, or I put my hand over the tank—they'll go right back in. Then you have to wait and wait and wait and wait, until they feel comfortable enough.
An octopus can take a very long time, to get to a place where you can actually photograph them. They're the hardest, by far. I have the most pictures of octopuses than any other kind of animal. I find them the most fascinating.
READ MORE: Our full interview with Susan Middleton about Spineless, what brought her to photography, and navigating the intersection of art and science through her work was published online alongside the Spring 2011 Santa Clara Magazine.