Wordle of Blog

Wordle: Art from Plastic Pollution

Monday, March 14, 2011

Susan Middleton - Portraits of Rare and Endangered Wildlife

Susan Middleton © 2004
This Pacific golden plover, kolea in Hawaiian, was found dead on Midway Atoll after an obviously painful and unsuccessful struggle to free itself from the stranglehold of a red plastic ring caught between its beak and around its neck.  Kolea wintering in the NWHI are safe from predators, but not from the perils of plastic debris littering their feeding grounds.  
Susan Middleton will be another one of the artists exhibiting work at the The Sixth Gyre: Art, Oceans, & Plastic Pollution art exhibit at the 5th International Marine Debris Conference next week in Honolulu, Hawaii. Susan has a long history of exploring the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, more recently leading photography focused Natural History tours to Midway Atoll with Oceanic Society. We are lucky enough to have her striking photographs as part of the group exhibit. Included will be the Pacific Golden Plover image above, that has never been on public display. The images are part of a series of photographs she took in collaboration with another 5IMDC exhibit artist, David Liittschwager. Together the images they produced were part of an assignment for National Geographic that resulted in the wonderful book Archipelago.
David Liittschwager © 2004 Photo 1 (see description)
Susan Middleton © 2004 Photo 2 (see description
The photos pictured to the left are from a series Susan and David shot of an albatross chick they got to know while staying on Kure Atoll, eventually naming the chick "Shed Bird," you can watch a video about the development of this relationship with the chick as told by Susan and David at National Geographic. Photo 1 shows the necropsy of shed bird discovered dead one morning.  The feathers were separated and the chest cavity was sliced open, exposing a huge, lumpy proventriculus (stomach) that was perforated. Then the proventriculus was cut open, exposing plastic—a sharp rectangular piece causing one of the perforations, two disposable cigarette lighters, several bottle caps, an aerosol pump top, a piece of a shotgun shell, broken clothespins, toys, and more. In total, Shed Bird’s proventriculus was stuffed with 12.2 ounces of plastic and other indigestible material, which led to malnutrition, dehydration, and eventually death.  Photo 2 shows the complete contents of Shed Bird’s stomach arranged on a sheet of white plastic, so that everything can be clearly seen.  Albatross chicks eat what their parents feed them, plastic included. Albatrosses feed on the surface of the water, they do not dive for their food.  For tens of thousands of years, albatrosses have foraged where ocean currents come together, feeding on flying fish eggs attached to pieces of floating pumice and driftwood, as well as squid which are driven to the surface by sharks and other large predators.  Only in the last 50 years has plastic also accumulated along these same currents convergence zones.  These currents bring in a variety of plastics including: pieces of shotgun shells, paintbrushes, pump spray nozzles, toothpaste tube caps, clothespins, buckles, toys, just to name a few.

It will be great to have Susan's personal exploration of this topic on display at the exhibit. She will also be attending the conference, occasionally available at the Exhibit to talk to individuals that come to see this collection of similarly focused art. Susan's most recent book is called Evidence of Evolution (Abrams 2009). She has also written the following introduction to her work exhibited in the conference, detailing how she was drawn to the environmental topic of marine pollution: 

"My work has focused on the portraiture of rare and endangered wildlife for over twenty five years. I have tried to help give these creatures a voice since they cannot speak for themselves. I began in California, then expanded to the continental United States, then Hawaii, the endangered species capital of the world. Most recently I have worked in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the most remote part of the most remote archipelago in the world. Here I witnessed the most pristine and intact ecosystems I had ever experienced, and I began making portraits of life beneath the waves, exploring the marine environment. I was in one of the most remote places on the planet; this was a place where wildlife reigned, it was not just a novelty. It belonged to the wildlife, and I felt like I was in someone else’s home. And what did I discover? An incomprehensible amount of marine pollution, debris washed up on the beaches on all the islands, and then, even more disturbing, evidence of plastic pollution infecting the digestive systems of seabirds. Lesson learned? Nowhere is remote now. Nowhere is separated and immune from the impacts of human actions. I could not look away, and felt compelled to visually convey what I witnessed through my photographs."

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