I never thought I would see a personality emerge in a photograph of a marine invertebrate. But that’s exactly what happened when I visited Susan Middleton’s Spineless: Portraits of Marine Invertebrates The Backbone of Life photography show at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center’s Schaefer International Gallery.
The show, and her book by the same name, is the result of Middleton working alongside biologists in research vessels as she photographs these fantastic creatures up close and personal. It’s so you and I can get to know these little seen living things.
“I hope people get excited by the show,” says Middleton. “In the sense that I hope people see animals that they never heard of or seen before. I want them to get excited by that, and spark a curiosity that could lead to a greater understanding. How we each ask ourselves questions like, ‘what does this mean?’ If these animals are the foundation for the rest of life on the planet, then they are pretty important, and how does that work?”
The show is gorgeous. Larger than life images of invertebrates line the walls with little descriptions and anecdotes about the creatures that she’s profiled. Her video project Hermit Crabs! also plays on a loop in a corner room.
Spineless is the sixth book in a line of projects that started with her photographing endangered plants and animals in the US. This brought her to Hawaii, where she was immediately intrigued by our biology.
“If I look back at my previous projects, each one leads me to the next,” says Middleton. “I did start making portraits of rare and endangered plants and animals in the mainland US but also in Hawaii. I did a couple of books on federally listed endangered species and that brought us to Hawaii. But when I got here I was like, wait, everything is totally different here. Not just geographically, but the fact that 25 percent of plants and animals on the endangered species list are from Hawaii. But Hawaii has such a small land area. That was when I seriously started to attach myself to science. I wanted to understand that. I started understanding how evolution works and how amazing it was when the volcanic islands emerged that created the archipelago of Hawaii in this isolated area, away from the continents. This created the situation for these life forms to evolve over 70 million years. Because of this isolation, these life forms do not exist anywhere else in the world, and that is just so exquisite to me.”
To get the images, Middleton set up elaborate photo studios in wet labs on research ships.
“I have a little area where I setup my aquariums,” she says. “There is a constant flow of fresh seawater being pumped in from just outside the vessel. You can keep animals happy for a period of time with water that is fresh and the right temperature and all of that. I will put an animal in my aquarium and then visually isolate it by putting in a white background. I make these by sanding pieces of milky translucent plexiglass and then I have also created a lighting system. It’s kind of a complex photo studio. I’m photographing them in really controlled conditions and hand holding the light. That is what makes them unusual pictures because I can actually really control the light and I can visually isolate them from their surroundings. I love seeing them in their natural habitats but to be perfectly honest sometimes they are a little difficult to see. Many are small. Many hide. It’s not so easy to photograph them to show their natural characteristics in their natural habitat.”
She became interested in invertebrates while on a NOAA research trip in 2006 that involved top biologists collecting and discovering various species. Trips like these aren’t common, because more often funding goes to better known megavertebrates.
“I don’t think I have ever seen terrestrial animals that are this interesting with this repertoire of color and shapes, forms and textures,” says Middleton. “That led me to focus on the marine invertebrates specifically.”
So she traveled side by side with scientist to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Palmyra, Kingman and Jarvis, in the Central Pacific area where there’s a really healthy coral reef habitat.
“I feel like there’s a commonality between the way artists work and the way scientists work,” says Middleton. “There’s a huge curiosity. This open-ended quest for discovery. They want to understand how life works. They’re looking at the smaller less conspicuous invertebrates. Yet evolutionarily this is the realm of life that the rest of life depends on. This is the foundation for all life on our planet. Over 98 percent of described species in the ocean are invertebrates. It’s like we are standing on their shoulders except most of them don’t have shoulders. We depend on them so much for our own survival. They’re important scientifically but also just ultra cool.”
She discussed her project with imminent marine biologist and ocean explorer Sylvia Earle, who shed some light on just how important these ocean creatures are.
“She wrote a beautiful foreword in my book Spineless,” says Middleton. “When I asked her to write it, I was on Midway Atoll, and we were talking about my work. She asked me if I had a title for the book and I said yes, I want to call it Spineless and then the subtitle should be ‘Portraits of marine invertebrates the backbone of life in the sea.’ She said no, it shouldn’t be life in the sea, it should be the backbone of life, period. Because without a healthy marine invertebrate fauna in the ocean, the rest of life comes to a grinding halt. It’s the foundation for life on all of the planet. Evolutionarily and in the present moment.’”
Which is why the acidification of the world’s oceans poses such a big problem for the invertebrate ecosystem. Middleton says these rapid changes caused by climate change are directly affecting our ocean invertebrates. They don’t have spines, so many of them depend on shells and corals create these skeletons. The crab is an invertebrate that has an exoskeleton that is made of calcium carbonate. But rapid acidification of the ocean corrodes these calcium shells. There’s less calcium in the water now, because of the acidified waters, which means it’s more difficult for invertebrates to create their shells in the first place.
“Acidification threatens their existence,” says Middleton. “I always think if these animals could speak, they would cry out for help. That’s part of this, too. I hope that people that come are delighted by what they see but I also hope that maybe people hear the help message, too.”
Spineless: Portraits of Marine Invertebrates, The Backbone of Life
Schaefer International Gallery
Maui Arts and Cultural Center
Show runs Aug. 6 – Oct. 1
Gallery is open Tues-Sunday, 10am-5pm