SEE HER PHOTOS: Click below to view a slideshow of Middleton's work
When Susan Middleton describes what she’s after in her photography, the conversation will navigate the currents of science, poetry, and art, and where these waters converge. Though in one sense, she says, simply, “I’m only trying to compose an image.” But what an image.
Work from two remarkable projects—Evidence of Evolution and Spineless: The Backbone of the Sea—forms the show Life Cycle, opening April 8 at the de Saisset Museum. Along with a reverence for the vanished, there’s humor—and portraits of marine invertebrates that are tiny and heroic, wondrous and iridescent: a flame scallop whose tentacles unfurl, a Christmas anemone blossoming. “People need to be inspired,” Middleton says. “And I think the way to feel inspired is to feel connected to life itself.”
The Murre eggs at the top of this page—patterned as if Jackson Pollock were decorating for Easter—are among the endangered or extinct species portrayed in Evidence of Evolution. That project, which yielded a book published by Abrams in 2009, draws from the collection of the California Academy of Sciences, where Middleton chaired the photography department from 1982 to 1995. The marine invertebrates, which will populate her next book project, are from Spineless.
Middleton summons the individuality of her subjects in her portraits—just as a human portrait photographer strives to capture a personality. That’s no accident; Middleton’s development of her oeuvre included a stint with Richard Avedon.
A native of Seattle, Middleton studied sociology at Santa Clara and took every art class she could. After graduating, she worked at the de Saisset Museum with Director Lydia Modi Vitali and became enthralled with painting, sculpture, performance, and conceptual and video art; only later did photography speak to her, once she saw its transformative power.
The work she has done since may be charged with urgency—the endangered North American species portrayed in Witness (Chronicle Books, 1994)—or dazzling luminosity, as in Remains of a Rainbow: Rare Plants and Animals of Hawaii (National Geographic, 2003), which includes a foreword by U.S. poet laureate W.S. Merwin. The biologist E.O. Wilson assessed that Middleton’s portraits “speak to the heart. In the end their kind of testimony may count as much toward conserving life as all the data and generalizations of science.”
We can only offer a hint of what’s in store in the exhibit. Some of the creatures in Spineless are new to science, and Middleton is the first to photograph them, ever. Highly recommended: Come to the opening reception April 8—or meet Middleton yourself at her artist’s talk at the museum on May 12.
Steven Boyd Saum
Luminous beauty and the delight of discovery in a photo essay by Susan Middleton '70.
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