What does it mean to capture a multi-millennial lifespan in 1/60 of a second? Or for that matter, to be an organism in my 30s bearing witness to organisms that precede human history and will hopefully survive us well into future generations? These are the questions Rachel Sussman asks herself in her quest to photograph continuously living organisms that are over 2,000 years old:
Since 2004, Sussman has been making her way around the globe in search of some of the world’s oldest living things. Before setting off on her journey, she began researching continuous living organisms at length, beginning from year zero and working backwards through time.
She has been working closely with biologists, meeting them in dozens of countries, and she has photographed 30 different representative species that have gone far beyond the 2,000 year mark. Some of her favorites—and most memorable—are lichens in Greenland that grow only one centimeter every hundred years, a predatory fungus in Oregon, brain coral in the Caribbean, and an 80,000 year old colony of Aspen trees in Utah.
Her project really puts human life spans into a different perspective.
Sussman’s work spans disciplines, continents, and millennia. It has never been done before in the art and science fields, making this project incredibly unique and important. As Sussman herself says, it has an innate environmentalism, and it’s underscored by an existential journey into Deep Time.
“I approach my subjects as individuals of whom I’m making portraits in order to facilitate an anthropomorphic connection to a deep timescale otherwise too physiologically challenging for our brain to internalize. It’s difficult to stay in Deep Time – we are constantly drawn back to the surface. This vast timescale is held in tension with the shallow time inherent to photography.”
Sussman says that choosing these ancient living things as her subjects is very significant because it is really about connecting to an experience of being alive through millennia.
“It’s just a fascinating exploration of a kind of life that most of us don’t know anything about.” – Carl Zimmer
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