Life at its most beautiful

A conversation with Susan Middleton ’70

Page 8 of 9

Sobering and reverent

SCM: When you were photographing the collections for Evidence of Evolution, how did that feel at the end of the day?

Middleton: Really sobering, and sad. It was important to me to also have in the exhibition at the de Saisset the portraits of death—but only in juxtaposition with life. Because it's all part of the life cycle.

The extinct species—it's very poignant to look at them. First of all, when you go into a museum's natural history collections, and you're going for the extinct specimens—at the California Academy of Sciences, for example—they're very highly prized. All the specimens are, and there are 26 million of them there.

The most valuable ones are the extinct species and the type specimens, the holotypes. For every species, there's one particular specimen that's selected, usually by the scientist who does the official species description. That one particular specimen is delineated as a holotype, and that is forever and ever the physical representation of that species. What distinguishes them in the images are blue ribbons.

For example, there are the Carolina parakeets. They have these beautiful tags that tell who collected where, when—1885, 1905. And you know the fate. Also, you know the fate of the passenger pigeons. With this beautiful bird, you can see a hint of its original beauty, because the feathers don't lose their shimmering iridescence, its reflected structural color.

But these specimens are all there is left. They are all we have. They will never come back. What is the wonderful quote by William Beebee? Heaven and earth will have to go by before anything like this would come back again. Gone is gone. And it didn't have to happen.

People will always say to me, when I do a presentation, “Well, isn't extinction part of the natural evolutionary process?” Yes, it is. And people like E.O. Wilson write about this far more eloquently than I can speak about it: But it's known scientifically what the background rate of extinction is—in other words, what the natural rate of extinction has been in terms of the fossil record. New species are being created, but it takes a long, long time. With the background extinction rate, there used to be a kind of balance. There have been some mass extinctions historically caused by weather events or meteor strikes. But this is the first mass extinction—and we are undergoing a mass extinction right now—that's generated by one species: our own.

To be with these specimens, it's a deep kind of contemplative, poignant, spiritual sadness for me. But then, there's all this beauty. That's why the poet William Merwin said, “I think a good title for your Hawaiian book would be Remains of a Rainbow—because the rainbow is still there, but it's not in its full spectrum.”

On the one hand, we're responsible for a lot of extinctions mostly form altering and destroying habitats that animals and plants need to survive; they're losing their homes. On the other hand, look at the precision and care that went into preserving these specimens. We also have a great deal of love and sort of obsession about understanding life, and collecting and categorizing, and organizing, and trying to make sense of all these relationships. That care is really shown in the way that the specimens are preserved and prepared.

I do a lot of presentations, a lot of public speaking. I like working more and more with students. Students are really receptive, even kids, and that's a lot of the reason why I've kept doing what I'm doing: because there seems to be a place for these images in the world.

When I started doing this kind of photography, some people thought it was sort of manipulated. It wasn't like traditional nature photography. David Liittschwager and I asked writer Barry Lopez to do the foreword for our first book. He said, “I don't have time right now, because I'm on a book deadline. But what I really think would be more useful to you, and what I want to do, is go out in the field with you, because I want to write about your process. I want people to understand how you do this.” Some people were assuming that we were torturing these animals, or that there was something cruel about it, or manipulative in a way that was not ethical.

He came out in the field with us several times and wrote a piece in Orion magazine. And it was beautiful, what he wrote. He used the word “reverential.” He said, "These are two people—David and Susan—who were in attendance, bearing witness." I was really involved in photographing endangered species then: plants and animals that are losing ground, disappearing. I still feel like I'm trying to show something heroic and memorable; these animals and plants are as important as anything to me.

I do have this artistic thing that won't stop. That's where kind of the resilience came in; it was realizing, This is what I'm supposed to be doing. And it had to do with the response to the imagery in the early years, in the first times I gave presentations in schools and elsewhere. I thought, I have to keep doing this.

There's obviously a place in the world for this, even though it's kind of difficult in terms of finding financial support to do it sometimes. I knew I wasn't going to get rich doing this, but I at least wanted to be able to do it, and to survive doing it.


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