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