Life at its most beautiful

A conversation with Susan Middleton ’70

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The scientists were doing the same thing. I remember asking Gustav, “How long can you work like this?” He said, “You mean, at this level of intensity? About three weeks. After that, I'm burnt.”

So it's pretty intense. But it's an incredible privilege. And how else could you have access to these animals and observe them with this extent of intimacy, without that kind of a situation?

Each one of the places where I've been working has been a fantastic situation to work—with experts, collectors, and people who are super knowledgeable about the creatures and what's going to keep them happy. And the conditions have been good conditions, with fresh water, being close to their habitat, really rich habitats. These are not deprived areas in terms of the biodiversity. They're hotspots.

So I'm eavesdropping on this profusion of life that's capable of being really resilient, which is not always the case—if you're in a place that's a dead zone, for example, or a place that's plagued by some kind of toxic influence.

SCM: When you personally were diving, how deep would you go?

Middleton: Typically, about 30 to 40 feet. The deepest dive I ever did doing this work was about 85 feet; overall, the deepest dive I've ever done was 120. The thing is, things get less interesting.

People think, Oh, it's so great to go deep. For one thing, you get a little loopy, and it's a lot harder once you're down that deep. So if you don't have a real reason to go, I don't quite see the point. Though we did see some pretty interesting things at 80 feet—huge lobsters and things like that.

My whole reason to dive was so that I could stay down for longer than a minute, or 30 seconds, even—just to go down there and look. Not even to traverse a big area, but just go down and look for 20 minutes in one place, to get a sense of the environment, how cryptic these things are.

SCM: So, what did that teach you? How do you see the invertebrates differently than you might, had you not?

Middleton: I have a great deal of respect for them. More and more and more. The more I observe them, the more I learn about them.

You know what it is? It's being exposed to the sort of brilliance of the evolutionary process. You can see it in these—what many people might think of as sort of lowlife creatures. Their adaptations to the conditions that they live in are extraordinary. I'm interested in the structures and the forms, and the things that I can show photographically. That alone is very impressive. But then there are all these other levels that you can't see, that scientists get very excited about—how species are related to each other, for example. A lot can be determined now with DNA sequencing.

It opened my eyes to a whole other realm of life. When I was photographing the endangered species throughout America for Witness, I didn't know about the extent of the biodiversity in the marine invertebrate realm. It's somewhat analogous to the invertebrates terrestrially; E.O. Wilson opened my eyes to those with his book about ants, and his stories—what he calls the Magellanic voyage around the trunk of a tree. There's so much that hasn't been described, when you get to the tinier things and the lesser-known things. I'd been exposed to that, particularly through his writing and through conversations with him. So that opened me up to how important the invertebrate world is, and plants of course. Without the plants and the inverts, we wouldn't be here. Nothing else would be here. It's part of the foundation.

In the marine environment, what I particularly love is that the forms, colors, shapes are—I don't even know how to describe it—you can't really say “outlandish,” because they're part of Earth. But they really are shockingly amazing. And the hardest thing was to get the color as intense as it really is. I was thinking, I don't know if the camera's going to be able to get how iridescent that plant is. We don't have that kind of iridescence in terrestrial plants.

I've been very surprised by the myriad forms, textures, colors, behaviors, strategies for survival, the complexity. It is intelligent design—but it's not intelligent design the way it's popularly understood.

By the way, while this is kind of off-track, I don't see any conflict between the theory of evolution and the presence of the divine. I feel like evolution is the greatest story ever told, and it exemplifies the divine. The divine is expressed in every one of these creatures. And the relationships between them are fascinating to learn about, the connectedness of all of life.

Attaching myself to these scientific experts has been a revelation for me. It helps me know what to photograph, too. I couldn't go collect all these. How would I find a flatworm? They're tiny little things; they hide. So it's a collaborative thing.

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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.

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