Bay Area photographer promotes conservation with marine life portraits

In photographer Susan Middleton’s hands, a crustacean becomes a persnickety resident of a shell chasing away the new starfish neighbor.  Her photography of hermit crabs and other marine invertebrates lend them character, an unexpected twist in nature photography.

Susan Middleton ©2005

Middleton is a portrait photographer whose subjects are rare and endangered sea creatures and whose passion is conservation. Her current exhibition, Life Cycle, at Santa Clara University’s de Saisset Museum until June 3, is a study of rare marine invertebrates.  Set against stark white or black backgrounds, Middleton’s shots of giant octopuses, tiny sea slugs, and other fascinating sea dwellers vividly come to life.

In fact, she cites working during the 80s with Richard Avedon, a renowned portrait photographer with a more traditional human focus, as an influential force in her current work.  Her combined interest in portrait photography and nature drew her to seek an answer to the following question: can a portrait of a plant or animal evoke the same emotional response as a portrait of a person?

Michelle Clark, biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Kauai, certainly thinks so.  She finds her inspiration for her conservation research through art.

Clark commented on one of Middleton’s past exhibits, saying, “Her species portraits spoke to me on a visceral level and ignited a passion within that inspired me to go deeper in to the work of conservation of Hawaii’s native flora and fauna.”

A nature conservationist, Clark believes that Middleton’s science–as-art makes a great communication tool for the environment, saying that it has “the capacity to introduce the concepts of biodiversity, extinction, and conservation to a much broader audience than we as government agencies, researchers and conservation organizations could do on our own.”

Middleton stages her photographs with conservation communication in mind, describing her art as an attempt to “reimagine biodiversity through the lens of a camera.”  She has carved out a unique position for herself between the disparate fields of science and art.  But that’s right where she wants to be.

At a recent Stanford University talk on titled Art, Science, and Biodiversity, Middleton spoke passionately about the lessons that science and art can learn from each other.  She always collaborates with scientists on her projects, and at their core, Middleton says, both science and photography have an “impulse towards going into uncharted territory to discover what’s new.”

Susan Middleton ©2005

Middleton is not just a photographer.  She is a storyteller. One story she tells is of Shed Bird, a young albatross she met and befriended while living in the remote, unpopulated northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

One day, her team found their young avian friend dead, a victim of a staggering amount of indigestible pieces of plastic lodged in Shed Bird’s stomach.  On one of the most remote stretches of beach on the planet, the young albatross had somehow swallowed enough plastic to kill it.

One of Middleton’s most evocative photographs is not of any animal, but of those plastic pieces arranged in a circular pattern—a stark reminder of the reach of humanity even into the planet’s most distant places.

Middleton’s work makes the exotic widely available, inviting the audience along as she explores uninhabited islands and rapels off cliff faces.  She specializes in photographing endangered species, emphasizing her message of conservation.  Middleton isolates her subject from its habitat, removing the context.  For her, this choice is conceptual. “Removing is exactly what needs to be preserved to ensure their survival, which is habitat.”

Eminent conservationist E.O. Wilson wrote, “each species is a masterpiece, a creation assembled with extreme care and genius.”

Middleton captures that masterpiece with the lens of her camera, displaying in brilliant color, for all to see, some of the rarest creatures on the planet. Her attempt is to bridge science and art, but also humankind and the natural world.  “In the end,” she said, “my photographs are more about humanity than nature — how we are connected to life, how it is a part of us.”


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