When I walk among very old trees, I feel the same sort of peaceful emptiness brought about by examining pictures of the breathtaking cosmos. By peaceful emptiness, I mean the emptying of the stressful crush of human concerns, while contemplating the eternity in which our struggles barely register. The feeling derived from great expanses of time distilled into something observable, yet still hard to fathom, is cleansing in a way.
The work of photographer Rachel Sussman reflects this sentiment, and she travels widely to stand among and document our planet's most elderly inhabitants. Her "The Oldest Living Things in the World" series depicts the usual suspects -- trees -- including California's bristlecone pines, Japan's cedars, Africa's baobabs, an 80,000-year-old "cloud colony" of quaking aspen in Utah, and olive trees on the island of Crete. But Sussman also showcases lichen that's survived Greenland's icy brutality for thousands of years, long-living species of coral, samples of 600,000-year-old bacteria from Siberia, and other fit microbes that have so far beat the odds.
What makes Sussman's photography fascinating and important is not just the subject matter, but the way that she frames it. She includes visual clues on environment, reveals ancient organisms slipping into modern endangerment, captures conservation efforts, and updates her hand-scrawled descriptions to notify viewers of the extinction of organisms that were lush during their close-ups. Sussman's spotlight on some of Earth's most resilient life forms has earned her a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship and a spot as a featured speaker at the 2010 TED Global conference.
On Thursday, May 21, George Eastman House (900 East Avenue) will host Sussman as part of its ongoing "Wish You Were Here" photography lecture series. During the 6 p.m. talk, Sussman will discuss her "The Oldest Living Things in the World" series, and her work on view in Eastman House's current show, "In the Garden."
Admission to the talk is $10 for the general public, $5 for students, and free to members. The museum's galleries will remain open until 8 p.m. on Thursday, should visitors like to see the shows afterward. For more information, call 271-3361, or visit eastmanhouse.org.
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