Hawaii's Next Top Models Photographers David Liittschwager and Susan Middleton give undersea creatures the star treatment
By Jennifer Hattam
SUSAN MIDDLETON BEGAN HER PHOTOGRAPHY CAREER documenting pottery, jewelry, and other fragile artifacts for museum catalogs. The exotic sea creatures of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands required even more delicacy.
This far-flung chain of islands and atolls is off-limits to most visitors. When accompanying researchers into the area, Middleton and fellow photographer David Liittschwager had to follow quarantine measures as strict as any operating room's. To prevent invasive bugs and plants from tagging along, the pair packed a separate, sealed set of clothes, camera straps, bags, and shoes--all brand-new and frozen for 48 hours--for each island they were setting foot on. Once there, they couldn't eat any food containing seeds that might sprout.
These procedures were needed to protect the extraordinary species featured in their book Archipelago: Portraits of Life in the World's Most Remote Island Sanctuary. Loose-limbed turtle hatchlings, neon-colored angelfish, fluff-ball tropic bird chicks, piebald crabs, and sinuous man-of-wars are all captured in the artists' stark style.
Both former assistants to the fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon, who famously posed his subjects in front of a plain backdrop, Liittschwager and Middleton often isolate animals and plants in studio-style settings. (At their first shoot together, Liittschwager even brought a light-reflecting umbrella he had used for a Vogue cover of Brooke Shields.) For Archipelago, this meant working alongside scientists who collected specimens during surveying dives, transferring individual creatures to portable seawater aquariums--taking care to keep predators and prey apart--and photographing quickly. Most of their subjects had to be returned to the ocean within a day.
Like Liittschwager and Middleton's earlier work on endangered species, the results are striking--and a bit unsettling. We're not used to seeing animals out of their habitats looking so vivid, and so vulnerable. While some subjects are set against black backgrounds--a technique in the pair's older books that created a somber tone befitting the creatures' besieged state--those in Archipelago often float across a white expanse.
This artificial setting conveys the physical characteristics and mood of the real place. "The atolls are so bright, it's almost blinding, and the white background reflects that," Middleton says. And despite continuing threats from invasive species and ocean-borne trash, the ecosystem is healthy. "The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are a joyous place," she says. "A place where life flourishes."
President Theodore Roosevelt established a bird sanctuary there in 1909. In 2006, a year after Archipelago was published, President George W. Bush designated the islands a marine national monument to protect their 7,000 animal and plant species, a quarter of them unique to Hawaii. Scientific researchers play a vital role by removing the garbage that can choke and entangle birds and other animals (see "Last Words"), pulling out non-native weeds, and surveying species. These efforts left such an impression that Liittschwager and Middleton broke with their usual portraiture to include more documentary images of the environment and the people working in it. "These islands can't stand great numbers of visitors," Liittschwager says, "but they need people to take care of them."
ON THE WEBTo learn more about the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (now formally dubbed the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, from the creation story about Hawaii and its people), visithawaiireef.noaa.gov. To see some of Middleton and Liittschwager's earlier work, go towww.endangeredspecies.org.