Susan Middleton

Susan Middleton

Fellow: Awarded 2009
Field of Study: Science Writing

Competition: US & Canada

Susan Middleton has been dedicated to the documentation and portraiture of rare and endangered animals, plants, sites, and cultures for the past thirty years, inspired by the earth’s biological and cultural diversity and motivated by the need to protect it. She is a photographer, author, producer, curator, lecturer and educator. A graduate of the University of Santa Clara, she chaired the California Academy of Sciences department of photography from 1982 to 1995, and since then has worked extensively in Hawai’i and West Africa. In 1985 she worked for a year with photographer Richard Avedon in New York City.

Ms. Middleton is an effective communicator on behalf of biodiversity preservation, combining art and science in a unique approach to reach a diverse audience and raise public awareness. This effort has resulted in numerous publications, exhibitions, public presentations, and media coverage. In 1984 she conceived a photographic style of visually isolating an animal or plant against a neutral backdrop to create a portrait, not unlike a portrait of a person, where detail and individual character are revealed, creating a direct encounter with the viewer. These images have helped to give hundreds of endangered species a voice since they cannot speak for themselves. Edward O. Wilson praised them as “remarkable portraits [that] have a wholly different impact: they speak to the heart. In the end their kind of testimony may count as much toward conserving life as all the data and generalizations of science.”

Ms. Middleton has initiated four large-scale projects over the last twenty years focusing upon rare and endangered species and native ecosystems within the United States: the first concentrating on California, then a national representation including all fifty states, followed by Hawai’i–the endangered species capital of the world–and most recently the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands where her presentations played a key role in the designation of the area as a National Monument, making it the largest protected marine area in the world.

Concerned by the decline of cultural diversity worldwide, Susan Middleton has conducted an ongoing project in West Africa researching and documenting the spiritual and philosophical tradition of Vodoun, in a culture which is remarkably intact, resilient and difficult to penetrate.

She has co-authored, with David Liittschwager, four books: Archipelago: Portraits of Life in the World’s Most Remote Island Sanctuary (National Geographic Books, 2005); Remains of a Rainbow: Rare Plants and Animals of Hawai’i (National Geographic Books, 2001); Witness: Endangered Species of North America (Chronicle Books, 1994), which was named the Photographic Book of the Year by the Maine Photographic Workshop; and Here Today: Portraits of Our Vanishing Species (Chronicle Books, 1991). She curated traveling exhibitions in conjunction with each of these publications. Ms. Middleton was an associate producer of America’s Endangered Species: Don’t Say Goodbye, an Emmy Award-winning National Geographic television special broadcast on NBC and PBS.

In 2006 she produced the thirty-minute documentary film Archipelago: Portraits of Life in the World’s Most Remote Island Sanctuary, which focuses on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, one of the last healthy marine ecosystems left on earth. She gave more than sixty presentations about the marine environment of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands during 2006-2007, over forty in schools, and in February 2007 she gave a presentation at the White House for First Lady Laura Bush, in preparation for her official visit to Midway Atoll, highlighting the designation of the NWHI as a Marine National Monument. She was also invited to accompany Mrs. Bush on her visit to Midway.

During 2008 Ms. Middleton embarked on a project photographing specimens of plants and animals from the research collections at the California Academy of Sciences illustrating aspects of evolution for the book Evidence of Evolution (Abrams, 2009). Fall 2008 she was invited to be a guest artist at Crown Point Press, an internationally recognized fine art etching press, to create six limited-edition photogravures, four in color. She is involved in an ongoing project focusing on living marine invertebrates for her next book: Spineless: The Backbone of Life in the Sea.

Among the numerous awards and honors she has received are the Nature Conservancy’s Distinguished Service Award, 1989; the Daisy Award for Achievement in the Arts from the Girl Scouts of America, 1992; a Certificate of Excellence at the 11th Annual American Photography Competition, 1994; the Biodiversity Leadership Award from The Bay and Paul Foundations, 1999 – 2001; and the Endangered Species Coalition’s Education and Outreach Award, 2007. In addition to her Guggenheim Fellowship, she was an East West Center Fellow at the University of Hawaii (1998) and twice a Whitely Center Fellow at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Marine Lab (2007, 2009).

Her work has received support from many sources, including the MacArthur Foundation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Foundation, Hawaii Community Foundation, National Geographic Expeditions Council, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and is in the permanent collections of more than a dozen institutions, among them the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Honolulu, Hawaii; The Nature Conservancy, San Francisco; the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C.; and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

Susan Middleton lectures widely and writes about her work. Her photographs have been exhibited and published throughout the world, in fine art, natural history, and scientific contexts. She continues to direct her work toward revealing the beauty and value of the earth’s natural and cultural diversity to increase public awareness and help leverage public policy toward the preservation of natural and cultural resources.

Profile photograph by Richard Morgenstein.


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