Rachel Sussman's Photos of the Longest Living Things on Earth
By Katie Arnold-Ratliff
O, The Oprah Magazine | From the May 2011 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
For a human being, turning 100 is a landmark achievement, but for the subjects of Rachel Sussman's photographs, turning even 1,000 is mere child's play. An encounter with a 2,000-plus-year-old Japanese cedar set Sussman's imagination ablaze in 2004, inspiring the 36-year-old artist to point her lens at many of the world's oldest living beings. Yet the project's roots, she says, go even further back. "I remember being 9 years old, looking at a map of the solar system," says Sussman. "I recognized that our lives are just drops in a bucket. I want the photos to make us consider our place in the grand scheme of things."
Sussman's quest has taken her to the Mojave Desert (home to what are thought to be 12,000-year-old yucca specimens, fenced off in the middle of an ATV range), the reefs of Tobago (where Sussman dived to find 2,000-year-old coral after earning her scuba certification in a Manhattan pool), and a lab in Copenhagen (where she snapped half-million-year-old bacteria under a microscope). Using a $25,000 grant she received last year from AOL, Sussman will soon visit Iran, site of what has been called the oldest cypress tree (clocking in at at least 4,000 years), and Tasmania, where she'll track down a 43,000-plus-year-old king's holly specimen. "You could walk right past these organisms, thinking they were just scraggly little trees," she says. "It's hard not to be humbled by giant 2,000-year-old sequoias, but you'd barely notice the 3,000-year-old lichens in Greenland that grow one centimeter every hundred years. I'm hoping these portraits will give people a feeling of awe they weren't expecting."
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