Leave Only Footprints: Rachel Sussman’s “The Oldest Living Things in the World”
Rachel Sussman is a photographer filled with curiosity. At ONWARD we’ve been drawn to her equally researched and sensitive portrayals of the oldest living residents of this planet of ours, and are thrilled to review her latest publication “The Oldest Living Things in the World.” Take a look at the review below, and don’t forget to peruse our last book review of Cig Harvey’s gorgeous “Gardening at Night!” All Images ©Rachel Sussman.
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Take notice of quiet, unassuming people, especially if they look like they’ve logged some hard miles or have a few years on the crowd. These people are usually the wisest, hardiest, most fascinating ones around. They are the ones who can share profound stories—the ones that give us a new perspective on life.
The subjects in Sussman’s monograph The Oldest Living Things in the World impart a similar sort of perspective, albeit in an entirely different way and on an entirely different scale. Instead of people, contemporary artist Rachel Sussman photographs plants, fungi, bacteria, and the occasional invertebrate. While the oldest living human at this time is 116, the youngest subject in this monograph is two thousand years old.
Neither a wildlife photographer nor a trained scientist, Sussman is tenacious, capable, and supremely inquisitive. The brainchild of her passion for environmental conservation and her artistic talent, The Oldest Living Things in the World takes the esoteric topic of biological endurance and humanizes it. This monograph illustrates abstract ideas, profound metaphors, and even threatening concepts that demand both contemplation and action.
Without a prescribed paradigm or taxonomy, the facts and figures of earthly maturity are mind‐boggling. Trying to understand what it means for something to be thousands, let alone millions or billions of years old is antithetical to our day‐to‐day reality. There is an art to the holistic synthesis by which Sussman defines both “life” and “alive” for the context of her work. There is no discrete discipline, nor is there is any consensus in the scientific community for articulating longevity across species. Self‐imposed rules are vital to constraining what could otherwise be a sprawling, unwieldy undertaking into a logical framework. DNA‐repairing bacteria, clonal colonies of self‐replicating species, and carbon‐breathing microbes all make the cut using Sussman’s rules.
Extensive narration, both preceding the geographically‐organized chapters and within them, also serves to structure the project. Appropriate to the transdisciplinary nature of this undertaking, a pair of contributed essays accompany the artist’s introductory remarks. One is from noted art curator, critic, and historian Hans‐Ulrich Obrist; the other from prolific science journalist and lecturer Carl Zimmer.
Throughout the book, Sussman shares her travails to research, locate, globetrot toward, and finally photograph each specimen. Describing interviews, strategies, lodgings, conveyances, and more, her writing is equal parts travelogue, white paper, memoir, and manifesto.
Sussman oscillates between thick‐plotted journeys to meet with myriad scientists—dendrochronologists, mycologists, and geologists, just to name a few—and somewhat more provincial laments, including various injuries and the devolution of a romantic entanglement. She reveals as much about the vast knowledge she’s acquired as about how the work affects her emotionally, philosophically, politically, and even physically. This vulnerability further enables an understanding of the personal experience of each archaic organism.
Calling her photographs “portraits” instead of landscapes anthropomorphizes the subjects, inviting scrutiny of the relationship between humanity and nature. Save a few gnarled limbs, weathered surfaces, or extraordinary sizes, the seemingly immortal subjects are almost indistinguishable from their more ephemeral surroundings. Each organism, rather than being meticulously stylized before shooting, is photographed as it was encountered. When Sussman’s itinerary dictated that a subject would be visited out‐of‐season, ingenuity was paramount. Rather than being able to photograph the fruiting bodies of the Armillaria fungus, for instance, she chartered a plane to aerially observe the “death rings” that form concentrically from the site of infestation.
Across 304 pages, 124 color plates, and thirty subjects, the monograph’s overarching theme is survival, not only within inhospitable environments but also under the duress of human activity. The evolutionary tactics and the unique adaptations are as astoundingly evidenced in the ubiquitously photographed giant sequoias of California, as in the recently‐discovered Siberian actinobacteria, photographed in the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. For every excursion to Chile, Nairobi, India, and Antarctica, there are trips to Utah, Florida, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. The effect of featuring the relatively exotic and domestic within the same volume democratizes the entire collection.
Most of the art is shot using a Mamiya 7 II, a 6×7 medium‐format film camera. Only the underwater and the microscopy work was made with a digital camera. Prints were created by first making high‐resolution scans and then using an archival pigment process. In the monograph, most of the photographs are well‐arranged. Some straddle pages awkwardly, the point of focus unfortunately wedged in the gutter.
The assertion that the photographs themselves are emotional or philosophical landscapes is a tenuous one. Without the corollary narratives, the work itself might be dismissed as well‐executed verisimilitude. The transformative decade‐long journey Sussman completed in order to make the photographs is what elevates her work beyond that of a mere documentarian to that akin to performance art. Few other aesthetic endeavors have demonstrated how elastic the notion of time truly is – that the infinite can be appreciated within a moment, and a moment can be indelibly experienced forever. As Sussman states:
“ Perhaps, looking through the eyes of these ancient beings, and connecting with the deepest of deep time, we can borrow their bigger picture and adopt a longer view.”
Among her many revelations, Sussman’s epiphany about our culture’s false sense of permanence is the most poignant. Elderly is not synonymous with eternal, as we are reminded in the stories of two subjects that have perished since being photographed. The Senator, formerly the biggest and oldest pond cypress in the world, met its demise at the hands of methamphetamine‐drugged assailants. An underground baobab forest in Pretoria, South Africa was destroyed during construction of a new roadway. Aside from direct human threat, every organism featured in the monograph is under threat from climate change.
The Oldest Living Things in the World is at once humbling, confounding, and awe‐inspiring. Each photograph is not only reminder of our own mortality, but also an assurance of earthly continuity. To paraphrase Sussman, this book is, itself, a living palimpsest, containing innumerable layers of natural history and the human events with which they are interconnected.
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