IUCN Spotlight: Remains of a Rainbow exhibit
The colors of the plants burst out from a black background — a glorious, orange kokio, the silverish blades of a Ka‘u silversword and delicate, white petals of a na‘u, or gardenia brighamii.
Then there are the varied, shiny stripes on kahuli tree snails, their shells resembling jewels; the comical face of an ‘o‘opu fish, mouth agape, swimming to you; and the regal eye of an alae ula looking at you, its colorful red and yellow beak cocked aside.
The one-of-a-kind fine arts exhibit, "Remains of a Rainbow: the Hawaiian Archipelago — Photographs by Susan Middleton and David Liittschwager" will be on display on the ground floor atrium of the Hawai‘i Convention Center for the IUCN World Conservation Congress. The exhibit is on display at the congress in partnership with the National Tropical Botanical Garden of Kauai and National Geographic Society.
It is available for public viewing from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 2 to 7 and Sept. 9.
Middleton is a San Francisco-based artist and photographer specializing in the portraiture of rare and endangered animals, plants, sites and cultures. Liitschwager, a contributing photographer to National Geographic and other magazines, is also based in San Francisco. The exhibit combines images from both "Archipelago, (National Geographic 2005)" featuring the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and "Remains of a Rainbow, (National Geographic 2001)" featuring the Main Hawaiian Islands, for display together for the first time.
The Green Leaf caught up with fine arts photographer Susan Middleton for a Q&A.
GL: What inspired you to photograph endangered native Hawaiian flora and fauna for "Remains of a Rainbow"?
SM: I collaborated with David Liitschwager on four books and companion exhibitions from 1990 to 2005, focusing on rare and endangered flora and fauna...While working on "Witness" we visited Hawaii to complete fieldwork for the project. Known as the endangered species capital of the world, Hawaii was home to more than 25 percent of species on the Federal Endangered Species list, yet it comprised only one-tenth of one percent of the land area of the United States.
Two weeks of fieldwork stretched into five weeks while I witnessed the splendor of the native Hawaiian flora and fauna simultaneous with its tragic decline...This experience galvanized me into devoting the next 10 years to the Hawaiian archipelago, first in the main Hawaiian islands and then the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands...
GL: As you were photographing individual flora and fauna from Hawaii, did anything strike you in particular about Hawaii itself? Were the flora and fauna from the main Hawaiian islands as fascinating as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands?
SM: What I noticed, for the first time in my life, was how evolution actually works. On islands, particularly ones as isolated as the Hawaiian archipelago, it's easier for biologists to witness and understand evolutionary relationships — how some of the early plants and animals arriving on the islands were able to take hold and colonize, and then adapt to their new surroundings, changing and diversifying gradually over time into the wondrous array of flora and fauna that exists nowhere else on Earth.
I do think the flora and fauna of the main Hawaiian islands are as fascinating as the Northwestern Hawaiian islands, for sure! Of course the Northwestern Hawaiian islands are less impacted by human presence, and when there, I felt as if I was visiting someone else's home; wildlife reigns in the NWHI. But there is far more native plant diversity on the main Hawaiian islands. Much of it has been lost, but much still remains. Hence, the title of the exhibition at IUCN — "Remains of a Rainbow: the Hawaiian Archipelago."
GL: Do you have a favorite individual image (I know it's hard to choose). If you could only choose one image for this exhibit, which one would it be?
SM: My favorite individual image in the exhibit (right now, it changes) is the ‘o‘opu alamo‘o (Lentipes concolor), the Hawaiian native stream fish photographed at the NTBG Limahuli Stream on Kauai. This beautiful, little fish can scale 1,000-foot waterfalls, from the sea to high in the mountains. Its habits are perfectly adapted to its habitat, yet it is defenseless against agricultural runoff and non-native species introduced into its native streams. The picture shows two fish — one swimming upward with its partially gold color on full display; the other is hunkered down looking straight at the camera with a striking face. Voluptuous lips with tiny teeth!
GL:What message do you hope to get across with these images at the IUCN World Conservation Congress?
SM: The images in this exhibition have been specially selected to illustrate the spectacular profusion of life native to the Hawaiian archipelago on the occasion of the 2016 IUCN World Conservation Congress...Most IUCN participants won't have a chance to witness Hawaii's native flora and fauna firsthand, so my hope is that the exhibit will give a vivid impression of Hawaii's national treasures.
GL: Why is conservation important to you as a fine art photographer?
SM: I am a photographer and artist first, but early on I fell in love with what I was photographing, which were endangered species of California. And once you fall in love, you care about your loved ones. I attached myself to scientific experts to guide my fieldwork and learn about what I was photographing. And once I understood how imperiled and rare so many species are, and how human impact affects their survival, I became a full-on conservationist. And then I witnessed how the images can raise awareness toward conservation.