Life at its most beautiful

A conversation with Susan Middleton ’70

Page 9 of 9

Testimony

SCM: 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.

Discovery

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 the picture 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.

                                                          

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