Life Cycle: Web Exclusive
Life at its most beautiful
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.
SCM: And yet somehow, truth and beauty become wound up in the whole big picture. 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 mentioned that 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 back yard 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's 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 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 kind 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.
SCM: One of your photographs is on the cover of the spring Santa Clara Magazine, with the word that defines the theme: resilience. I'm wondering, from your perspective, how that word and concept applies—or doesn't apply—to the show Life Cycle.
Middleton: Resilience to me conjures up adaptation—an ability to bend and move. Adaptation is the name of the game in evolution. I love the word resilience. It's a more beautiful word than adaptation. The ways that these creatures survive in their ecosystems has everything to do with resilience; think of a lyrical bending: The piece of grass that stays stiff will crack, but the one that can bend with the wind will survive.
When we get stiff in our ideas, when we get stiff in terms of our ability to adapt physically, we are threatened. So resilience is very key to organic survival of life and to biodiversity.
And in relationships, resilience is so important. In conversation, resilience is so important. In driving in traffic, resilience is so important. And in making a photograph, it has a lot to do with it. Because I might have an idea for the kind of photograph I want to take when I see an animal. And then I watch the animal for a while, and I realize, no …
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.
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.
SCM: You 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 of any kind of animal. I find them the most fascinating.
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 from 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.
TestimonySCM: You mentioned Orion—your photograph of a Florida panther provided the cover for Orion some years ago, and there's a copy of that issue of the magazine here in your studio. Writers you've worked with include W.S. Merwin and Barry Lopez. Are there other writers who have offered inspiration or collaboration?
Middleton: I've had more in Orion recently. But that was the cover. It's a good magazine. Barry Lopez was the one who connected me with Orion initially.
A great inspiration has been Edward O. Wilson, from Harvard. He wrote the introduction to our book Witness. I'm hoping and wanting him to write the introduction for the book that will ultimately be made from the marine inverts, which is tentatively called Spineless, and then the subtitle would be Marine Invertebrates: The Backbone of Life in the Sea. Because they are: The marine invertebrates comprise about 98 percent of the known species in the marine environment, much to most people's surprise.
E.O. Wilson has been very influential, particularly his book Biophilia. I've been with him several times face-to-face. And I told him, “You know, you're a scientist who writes like an artist, especially in that book.” He's such a passionate conservationist. And he can write very clearly, for nonscientists to understand. He's a brilliant scientist. And he wants to see our biosphere preserved. He knows how important it is to our own survival.
What drew him to my work is what he says about David's and my pictures: “Maybe their kind of testimony will mean more than all the annals of science, because it speaks directly to the heart.” That's a reflection of him. He sees it as another way of communicating the beauty and wonder of life itself, and then the importance of trying to convey something about biodiversity, the variety of life.
And of course there is Wendell Berry, who wrote the Foreword for our book Here Today: Portraits of Our Vanishing Species, he really wrote perceptively about the significance of visually isolating a plant or animal in our photographs. He understood what we were doing, and he even stretched my own understanding about what I was doing.
SCM: There's the element of discovery and newness in so much of your work.
Middleton: The whole process of discovery that drives artists is exactly the same impulse that drives scientists. This is like some kind of primal drive.
There's a great similarity between art and science, actually. So I find scientists to be natural collaborators. I eavesdrop on these people; I've wanted to understand more about what I was photographing, to know about the back-story—because I want to communicate to the public. And I'm the perfect person to communicate with the public—if you don't mind me saying so—because I'm not a scientist. I don't have to adhere to all of those protocols, and I think I have a grasp of what's understood by the general public.
Though it is a little scary when I give a presentation at Friday Harbor Marine Lab, which the scientists always ask me to do. They're the experts. But they're very generous. Because they care about the critters. But I tell them, I want to be corrected if I'm saying something that isn't quite bang-on.
Back to the eggs
SCM: Let's go back to the eggs: the image that begins your photo essay in our spring magazine.
Middleton: Here's the deal with the eggs. They look like little Jackson Pollocks. Why would that be? There are probably 1,000 of these in the collections at the California Academy of Sciences. I went through and looked at every single one, and selected these. They are all patterned and interesting in their own right. There's not an ugly egg there. But, you know, being rather obsessive, I needed to look at them all.
The eggs in th epicture do represent the range of color. You also notice that they're shaped kind of in this conical shape; pyrform is the term. They're laid by Murre birds. There's a picture of a taxidermied female Murre bird in Evidence of Evolution. She's really beautiful. And she likes to lay her eggs out on the Farallon Islands, right off the coast here. That's one of their favorite breeding grounds.
She likes to lay her eggs on precipitous sea cliffs. They don't really build nests; their eggs are exposed. Hence the patterning, so it's not so obvious that there's an egg there. The coloring kind of camouflages it, within the environment.
Because of the really steep ledges where they're laid, the ones that have been shaped more conically have survived better. If they're nudged, they tend to roll in a circle. That's why I photographed them in a circle, with the conical end pointing inward—to reinforce the fact that, when an egg is shaped like that, it's less likely to roll off the edge. So they had a better survival rate with both the patterning and the shape. It just so happens that it's beautiful.
Luminous beauty and the delight of discovery in a photo essay by Susan Middleton '70.
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