The creatures of the deep ocean do not spend much time in the limelight. That’s something artist and photographer Susan Middleton is trying to change with Spineless, a new book published by Abrams & Cronicles that showcases the eerie beauty of invertebrate marine life, from the lowly crab to the stubby squid, in over 250 breathtaking images.
Between 2006 and 2013, the photos were taken at three different field locations: the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, the Line Islands in the central Pacific, and in the San Juan Islands in Washington State. To collect her subjects, Middleton worked in collaboration with marine zoologists and scientific divers, using a number of collection techniques, like retrofitting lobster traps or repurposing machines to suck up creatures living in deep sand.
“Some animals were collected at night using a light to attract them. Many of the fantastic marine worms live their lives buried deep in the sand flats; to find them required a low tide, shovel and a strong arm, the longer the better for reaching down deep,” Middleton tells Co.Design. “We also did plankton tows off the side of the ships to capture smaller animals that live in the water column. It helps to be with people who know how to look; who have mastered the techniques for handling these animals.
Once her subjects have been captured, Middleton readies them for a close-up by putting them in a small glass box, with carefully filtered watered for clarity. She then uses a trick she learned early in her career working with the great portrait photographer Richard Avedon: she visually isolates her subjects against a neutral background, which better reveals the character of her unorthodox subjects. “Marine animals are particularly challenging [to shoot] through glass and water, and the marine invertebrates are the most difficult because they tend to be small, sometimes transparent, and often quite kinetic,” Middleton says.
According to Middleton, she hopes that Spineless will bring new attention to the magnificent invertebrates of the deep: not just what she calls the “charismatic megafauna” like the squid and octopus, but the less conspicuous and lesser-known animals, born without backbones, which comprise over 98% of the ocean’s known species, and which are in ever increasing danger, thanks to climate change and the increasingly acidic water which dissolves the shells of these creatures.
You can buy a copy of Spineless through Amazon here.