Art Meets Science: Illustrating Deep Time Through Portraits of Nature

Of all the artists’ projects featured in The New Explorers, the one the book begins with, Rachel Sussman’s The Oldest Living Things in the World, is one of the more unusual. For more than a decade, Sussman has traveled all over the world to seek out and photograph organisms that are at least two thousand years old. She recalled for me how she unexpectedly lit upon the idea while having dinner one night with friends in Brooklyn after recounting the tale of a trip to Japan that involved a pilgrimage to an island in search of a seven-thousand-year-old tree. The experience of locating this ancient organism triggered in Sussman what has become a lifelong passion for deep time: a concept that measures time in terms of the earth’s history rather human history, a context in which time can feel disconcertingly vast.

Although Sussman had been making landscape photographs for years, the images in The Oldest Living Things in the World are very different from her previous landscape photography work. Rather than emphasizing the relationship between humans and nature, these images are more like portraits of the organisms themselves.


Sussman intentionally and unscientifically anthropomorphizes her nonhuman subject matter. She feels this approach allows her to foster a greater sense of connection between the viewer and the organisms.

Although the project appears to be more scientific than what is normally classified as art—the images have even been included in some scientific journals—Sussman works with the understanding that she is an artist, not a scientist. Walking a fine line between aesthetic imperative and scientific documentation, Sussman finds that her challenge is to engage the viewer. Some of the organisms in The Oldest Living Things in the World possess visually striking and unique features, but most are unremarkable; some are even difficult to see, remaining hidden in plain sight. Sussman makes them visible by creating both a sense of wonder and intimacy. These are the true elders on this planet we share.

Sussman imbues each subject with as much personality as she can, breaking down the “us-them” barrier between the viewer and ancient non-human organisms. Although some of the organisms are already environmentally protected by various agencies like UNESCO, many remain vulnerable, existing as they do in exposed and unprotected landscapes. Sussman hopes to connect the organisms she photographs to the larger world, with the ultimate goal of ensuring their protection. As an artist-adventurer, she bears witness to these organisms with an awareness that she and her camera are revealing a vast continuum. In the artist’s words, “Being old is not the same as being immortal.”

By offering visual evidence that the earth’s history predates human history, her portraits of ancient natural forms are her effort to make deep time visible and relatable. Through the lens of The Oldest Living Things in the World, Sussman presents the earth’s deep history as a new frontier.

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