A conversation with Susan Middleton ’70 about discovery, delight, patience, and paying attention—and the place where art and science meet in her photographs.

By Steven Boyd Saum

Learning to love photography

SCM: In the spring issue of Santa Clara Magazine and, much more so, in the show Life Cycle at the de Saisset Museum this spring, people have the chance to see work from two of your recent projects, Evidence of Evolution and Spineless. Each takes the viewer to a place that's startling and beautiful. So how did you find yourself exploring these places visually?

Susan Middleton: The first drive that I had to make photographs that led to these comes from when I was working at the California Academy of Sciences. I was doing a lot of different kinds of photography before then, in the anthropological collections, in the aquarium. I was very interested in portraiture, but portraiture of people. And I was doing portraits, in my studio. I was enthralled with Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. I liked kind of that style. But I also loved Irving Penn's still lifes.

I wanted to learn how to make photographs that I thought were strong. So I apprenticed myself to some people who could teach me. I brought them into the Academy of Sciences and I said, “I'm photographing all these Hopi kachinas for this catalog. They're carved wooden dolls, but I want them to look like they're alive. I want to do them all black-and-white, and then I want to do them in color. How do I get them to look like that?”

I really taught myself photography from photographing in those collections—first, from the anthropological collections. I consider those things empowered objects. They're not just street material. The kachinas have great significance in the culture that they come from. I wanted to do right by them.

Then I saw some Irving Penn photographs I hadn't before: a cigarette butt, an old, smashed paper cup. And he made these beautiful prints out of that. I thought, This is like magic. It convinced me of the transformative power of photography.

Photography was not my favorite medium at all when I was working at the de Saisset Museum after college. My favorite media were painting and sculptures—and conceptual art, video. And the museum Director then, Lydia Modi Vitale, was a huge influence and inspiration for me artistically. But I began to open myself up to photographs, and how powerful they could be. I thought, Wow, this is something I really want to pursue. After I worked for Richard Avedon for a year, I became obsessed with the kind of strange drive and work ethic he possessed. A little of that rubbed off. But I wasn't interested in photographing people. People—we're so full of ourselves. Everywhere we look, it's people, people, people. What about the rest of life? There's so much out there.

I grew up in the Northwest. My dad was not a scientist, but he loved nature. So I was out in nature a lot; I had an appreciation and love for it. Working at the Academy of Sciences, I started learning about what I was photographing. I met a man named Tom Eisner, who still teaches at Cornell. He's best friends with biologist E.O. Wilson. He introduced me to Wilson. He is an entomologist, as is Wilson, and he's a recipient of the National Medal of Science. I worked with Eisner in an intact ecosystem in Florida called the Archbold Biological Station. It's Florida scrub; photographing there started opening my eyes to all these different critters and plants out there, and how they all worked together. And, I realized, most people don't have a clue. Because I'm interested, and I didn't have a clue.

So I thought, This is where I want my attention to go—to the underdog. Once these pictures from Florida started coming out, people did respond. You know who responded the strongest? The conservation community. Especially the scientists who were passionate conservationists. They've been the most avid supporters, because they know what's going on here, and they know that there's a communication power here. They know that there's also an artistry here. They totally get it. There's never been any question in that community about the usefulness or the value of these pictures.

But sometimes in the art community, it's been kind of like: Are these really art? And then, in other parts of the science community: Well, they're not really science. They ride the line.

That's what gives them their kind of special place. But my primary impulse is an artistic one when I'm making a photograph. I can talk to you about the life—what I know about. But none of that is what I'm thinking about when I'm trying to compose an image.

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Spring 2011

See all articles from this issue


Life cycle

Luminous beauty and the delight of discovery in a photo essay by Susan Middleton '70.

The Pause for Coz

A much-beloved Jesuit, Fr. Richard Coz touched the lives of generations of Broncos—who established a scholarship in his honor with the goal of raising $1 million.

Mission Matters

Here's the plan.

It’s a new strategic vision for Santa Clara University. And a road map for the years ahead.

Taking innovations to scale

An inaugural conference on the Mission Campus draws the best of the Tech Awards. The goal: Take brilliant ideas, then replicate.

Bronco Profile

Man in motion

Rich McGuinness ’89 is a football force to be reckoned with. He’s the man behind The Ride and the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

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