Creature Portraiture: The Photography of David Liittschwager and Susan Middleton
Written By Dan Suthers, October 2, 2004
Susan Middleton and David Liittschwager are well known photographers who recently finished their third book, "Remains of a Rainbow," focusing on endangered species of the Main Hawaiian Islands. On the present expedition, they are working on a National Geographic book about the marine and terrestrial flora and fauna of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), intended to raise public awareness of this rich ecosystem.
The book will include "formal portraits" of plants and animals, many taken within the studio rather than in the natural environment. David offered several reasons for this choice. "Nature loves to hide:" camouflage is a principal form of protection. By photographing in the studio, it is easier to see the subject. Also lighting and positioning can be controlled. By observing a formal portrait of the plant or animal isolated against a white background, we can regard it as an individual in its own right, and also appreciate its need for the environment in which it lives. (A crosshatch triggerfish, Xanthichthys mento , is shown above in the photographers' tank. All photographs on this page are my own. They are taken with a hand held digital camera, so are far inferior to David and Susan's work.)
Many of their subjects are found only in the NWHI. Hawai`i has a very high rate of endemism. About 24% of Hawaiian fish species and 20% of invertebrate species are only found in the Hawaiian Islands . For example, the Hawaiian Lionfish (Pterois sphex , pictured at left) is endemic, as is the Masked Angelfish shown later. Therefore, it is necessary to bring the studio to the subject, and the Hi`ialakai provides a valuable opportunity. The photographers can set up a studio in the wet lab of a ship also carrying divers who can find interesting specimens. The Hi`ialakai supplies the wet lab with continuously circulating fresh ocean water, which is clearly important for keeping specimens alive during this kind of work.
Their studio for marine specimens includes a collection of water tanks ranging from a few ounces to 18 gallons in size, various strobe lights, and medium format cameras. Black felt and black tape covers any shiny surfaces on the cameras so that they do not create a reflection off the aquarium wall. A white translucent plastic sheet is used as a background, with strobes behind it to light it up. This is a "standard commercial photography solution" according to David, who used to work as a commercial studio photographer under Richard Avedon. They are shooting color negative film, because it has a wider range of values than transparency film, is more forgiving in terms of exposure, and they can also create digital images by scanning the negatives. To date, 226 rolls have been shot in the lab on this trip.
Many of David and Susan's subjects require extreme patience. They are placed in the aquarium, and then the photographers must wait, sometimes all day, for the specimen to become comfortable enough to make itself visible. This was the case with the sand anenome (pictured to the right) that I wrote about in the September 22nd journal, and is again the case today (October, 2nd) as they worked with a huge (14") Triton's Trumpet (Charonia tritonis , pictured above). Susan had propped it up with its opening upwards. Later on, Susan came back to discover that it had come out and begun to explore its environment. As its body extended and its tentatcles explored a strange environment, Susan snapped dozens of images while David tended the lights and positioning of the creature. Often as I watched animals being photographed, I fantasized about what they would tell their "friends" when they returned: "I was abucted by aliens!"?
David photographs a wrasse
|I have illustrated this page with some of my own photographs of their subjects. I hope they will give you an idea of the range of creatures to be found in their forthcoming book (which has yet to be named), to appear in the fall of 2005. Also watch for an article in National Geographic and a traveling exhibit opening simultaneously in Honolulu and Washington D.C.
While I was working on this article, we heard that Richard Avedon had just passed away, so I will dedicate this small work to him.
 Hoover (1993)
 Hoover (1998)