Life at its most beautiful
A conversation with Susan Middleton ’70
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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.