Life at its most beautiful
A conversation with Susan Middleton ’70
Page 5 of 9
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.
So my day is long. And the scientists were under the same kind of pressure—self-imposed, by the way. But it's such an incredible opportunity to be there. It's an expensive journey to finance. It's not going to happen anytime again soon. It may be another 10 years before they do something like this.
So everyone wants to maximize the opportunity while they're there. There's food being prepared on the ship, three meals a day at specific times. It's a little militaristic, in that way. But it's good, because I would go in, have a quick breakfast at seven, then I would be working all day. I would work as long as I could; when I was younger, I could pull all-nighters. I've realized that I'm not very efficient if I do; I kind of am at half-speed the next day. So you learn how much sleep you need. I would need at least six hours. So I'd try and just keep working and working. And then, at a certain point—at 11 or 12 at night, maybe—I'd go, “I think I have to shut it down.” Sometimes it would be contingent on the animals. If there were some really important animals that came in, I would stay up.
Luminous beauty and the delight of discovery in a photo essay by Susan Middleton '70.
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