Life at its most beautiful
A conversation with Susan Middleton ’70
Page 7 of 9
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 usually 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.