Rachel Sussman and the Oldest Living Things

Originally from Baltimore, Rachel Sussman has spent the last fifteen years in New York City, but don’t go looking for her there. Although she got her B.F.A. in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York, she’s often on the road, and searching for some very old things.

On a cross country road trip, Sussman wanted to visit Biosphere 2, in Oracle, Arizona. Built as a sealed ecological experiment in self-sufficiency, the giant greenhouse simulated different natural environments and was built to study, among other things, if humans could exist with finite biological resources recycled for extended periods. The structure fascinated to Sussman. “It was just absolutely captivating to me for the lines and the color and the light,” she says.

Biosphere 2 interior; ©Rachel Sussman

Finding the longterm implications profound, Sussman saw a melding of art and the natural world. “This idea of control of nature in the sense with this idea we could possibly live on another planet if we know how to do this right,” she says of her interest in the physical facility. “There is something completely fascinating about that. It is that perfect combination of the scientific, but it was also aesthetically really pleasing.”

Typically, her travels didn’t require tremendous planning. She picked a place she found interesting, and headed out. That’s changed with the project which is giving her a tremendous amount of attention, The Oldest Living Things in the World.

The image which started it all, Jomon Sugi Japanese Cedar, 2180 - 7000 years old; Yaku Shima, Japan. ©Rachel Sussman

What is old? In the 4.54 billion year history of our planet, lifeforms showed up within the first billion years. Anatomically modern humans can be dated only to about 200,000 years into the past, with modern man evolving about 50,000 years ago. Our species has wildly fluctuating lifespans, with just 210,000 out of 6.8 billion people reaching the age of 100 years or greater. In short, we haven’t been around too long, and Sussman has set out to put things in this perspective with her Oldest Living Things in the World project. With the goal of photographically documenting organisms at least 2000 years of age and older, her images are a wake-up call to humanity. Encouraging preservation, concern for the continued stewardship of our natural habitat, and understanding lifeforms far more hardy than we are, Sussman may be undertaking one of the most important individual campaigns of species self-awareness and reverence for the fragility of the planet’s ecosystems since Charles Darwin sailed out of Plymouth, England on the H.M.S. Beagle.

Sagole Baobab, 2,000 years old; Limpopo Province, South Africa. ©Rachel Sussman

Traveling the Earth to remote lands to photograph plants and animals—yes, animals—which have been in place since what many humans have denoted as year 1, Sussman goes through an inordinate amount of planning. She makes contacts among biologists researching these ancient organisms, and hopefully gets invited to visit them when they are in the field. Many of these specimens couldn’t be found without experts. A recent trip to Greenland required six months of planning. Logistically coordinating excursions to Antarctica and Tasmania require building entire teams to get her there and back safely.

No stranger to shooting landscapes, Sussman finds similarities with finding and photographing extraordinarily-old life. “I am doing that same sort of looking and exploring—that sort of ‘you know it when you see it moment,’” she explains. “That still happens. It is just a different framework than landscapes in which I am going out to do these shoots.”

The Oldest Living Things in the World has kept Sussman busy for the past five years. With over thirty examples captured on film, she believes she’s completed about two-thirds of the project on her list. “The list is somewhat flexible, as I discovered,” she says. “I find out about things as new things are discovered. Sometimes others are removed as new research come out. I think I have about two more years left of work on this space of the project. I also feel like it is something I would probably do for the rest of my life as these things get discovered. I don’t think I would be losing any interest in this.”

Brain Coral, 2,000 years old; Speyside, Tobago. ©Rachel Sussman

It seems nothing will prevent Sussman from finding and photographing something appropriate for her documentation. She got her open water diving certification in order to photograph a 2000-year-old brain coral head at a depth of 18 meters below sea level in Tobago. She recently dove again to shoot a 100,000-year-old clonal seagrass. It possesses one continuously growing root system. One part of it is genetically identical to any other part of it, so, although it regenerates, it is not a new plant. Similarly, although on dry land, Sussman has photographed Pando, in Fish Lake, Utah. Although it looks like a forest, Pando is actually a clonal Quaking Aspen, with one massive root system 80,000 years old. Each “tree” is actually a genetically identical stem growing from one individual plant.

Clonal Quaking Aspens, 80,000 years old; Fish Lake, Utah. ©Rachel Sussman

Her photo of Spruce Gran Picea in Sweden is 9550 years old, and is nearly half-defoliated due to climate change, with temperatures warming on the mountain it has called home since 200 years before the signing of the Magna Carta, and 100 years before the Crusades began. “This project is about art,” Sussman says. “It’s about science, but it’s really about that philosophy—the idea of looking at time differently—stepping outside of our quotidian experience. It’s not very often you get to consider that deep time scale. I think it hopefully touches on the feeling of art and the natural sublime, which we usually don’t run into on a daily basis.”

Spruce Gran Picea, 9,550 years old; Fulufjället, Sweden. ©Rachel Sussman

Sussman’s oldest inclusion in her project is a soil sample with Siberian Actinobacteria, which clocks in at approximately one half-million years old, give or take 100,000 years, which she photographed at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. It is possibly the oldest living organism on the planet, and was taken from the permafrost in Siberia. If the permafrost continues heating up, it will likely be lost forever.

Siberian Actinobacteria, 400,000 - 600,000 years old; Neils Bohr Institute, Copenhagen, Denmark. ©Rachel Sussman

When asked about her gear she uses to document this project, she laughs. “I am so not a gear head,” she exclaims. “That’s one of the reasons I love my Mamiya 7 II. It is such a great camera for me. I feel comfortable with it. I have been using it long enough that I have a pretty good sense of what I am going to get.”

Her Mamiya has been with her for the entirety of The Oldest Living Things in the World project. “Actually, I got the Mamiya in 2004, right before the trip to Japan, which actually ended up sparking my idea for this project,” she says. “The reason I chose it is because I love that it basically feels like a big 35mm. I love that it’s a rangefinder. It feels rugged for the way I shoot. I’m always traveling. I’m going to some pretty extreme climates. It feels comfortable in my hand. It’s easy to use and gets these gorgeous results. Really, what’s not to like? It feels great. As soon as I started shooting with it, I just knew.”

La llareta, up to 3,000 years old; Atacama Desert, Chile. ©Rachel Sussman

Not trusting her Mamiya to underwater housings, she used a Canon PowerShot G10 for her initial marine photography, although she now uses a Panasonic LX3 with a 10Bar housing for her underwater work.

Sussman shoots Fuji 160S and 400H in her Mamiya 7 II. Although she loves film, she is not afraid of digital technology. “I really am dedicated to film, but I do make digital prints,” she says. “I feel I get the best of both worlds by shooting medium format and then making drum scans and archival pigment prints.” Eventually, gallery-sized enlargements will be printed. This is one of the factors why she’s shooting Mamiya gear with medium format film.

For the immediate future, Sussman will continue heading to seldom-traveled areas. A 5000-year-old moss awaits on the Antarctic Peninsula, and a 4265-year-old coral chain lies off Hawaii, among other old things cradled on our planet. She has a book and gallery tour planned when The Oldest Living Things in the World project is complete. No matter how fleeting her images and their implications will make us feel, we look forward to viewing them in book form whenever we want, for however long we have left to go.

Rachel Sussman Photography
Rachel Sussman blog
Rachel Sussman on TED
Rachel Sussman at Gel 2010
Rachel Sussman on Twitter

Written by Ron Egatz

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