Photographer documents the world’s oldest living things

Rachel Sussman is on a quest to photograph the oldest living things in the world. The Brooklyn-based photographer is traveling the planet to track down organisms that have been alive for over 2,000 years: everything from trees, shrubs, and corals to lichens and a type of bacteria from Siberia that has spent half a million years living on Earth.

siberian actinobacteria #tv-26 (400,000 – 600,000 years old; neils bohr institute, copenhagen) Copyright Rachel Sussman

Sussman is inspired by the idea of organisms whose life spans dwarf the range of human experience, and in some cases, human history. But at the same time, there’s a note of environmental awareness in the stories behind the pictures. “We have these organisms that have quietly persevered for an unfathomable amount of time but which are now in jeopardy,” Sussman said in an interview with The Guardian. “The Siberian actinobacteria are half a million years old and live in the permafrost. If the permafrost isn’t permanent, the oldest living things on the planet will die.”

sagole baobab #0707-00505 (2,000 years old; limpopo province, south africa) Copyright Rachel Sussman

Sussman plans to visit every continent on Earth before she completes the project – she has an upcoming trip to Antarctica to photograph 5,000 year-old moss banks. She works closely with biologists who are studying these elderly organisms to plan each of her trips, and travel to sometimes-remote locations to take the photos.

welwitschia mirabilis #0707-22411 (2,000 years old; namib naukluft desert, namibia) Copyright Rachel Sussman

The desert plant pictured above hardly looks like it’s thriving, but it’s survived in the desert for 2,000 years. The plant produces only two leaves in its long life, which are shredded into what looks like a massive pile of crumpled and discarded ribbons.

clonal quaking aspens #0906-4711 (80,000 years old, fish lake, UT) Copyright Rachel Sussman

Closer to home, Sussman has photographed a colony of quaking aspens in Fish Lake, Utah, nicknamed “Pando,” Latin for “I spread.” It spans over 47 acres, and is also one of the largest known organisms in existence. What you might call a forest of aspen trees is actually a single organism, each stem genetically identical, and connected by a well developed underground root system.

brain coral #0210-4501 (2,000 years old; speyside, tobago) Copyright Rachel Sussman

Sussman even took diving lessons to capture one of the oldest things in the ocean – off the coast of Tobago in the Caribbean is an 18 foot-wide brain coral that’s lived two millennia. It may be affected by coral bleaching.

la llareta #0308-23b26 (up to 3,000 years old, atacama desert, chile) Copyright Rachel Sussman

For the complete collection of photos, visit Sussman’s website. And to learn more, here’s Rachel Sussman’s July 2010 TED Talk on the world’s oldest living things.

January 9, 2011

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