The Oldest Living Things in the World

By Rachel Sussman

An awe-inspiring art book, blending photography with science and personal observations, this is Rachel Sussman’s “epic journey through time and space” to document “continuously living organisms that are 2,000 years old and older.”

The book includes photos from all over the world—Antarctica to Africa to Australia to the Americas—and part of its charm seems to be the tales of her adventures shared along with them, as well as scientific insights from the people who research these organisms.

I love the word one reviewer uses, calling Sussman a “chrononaut”—traveling through time to “peer at the almost eternal”. Her work has also been praised by the likes of E. O. Wilson, Stewart Brand, Paola Antonelli (if you had any doubt that this is a much more grand and significant work than your average photography book!) One thing I found particularly interesting is Brand’s mention of how “[l]ongevity means continuity”—how the work connects our short lifespans to a deeper context of living history.

Mostly, though, I love the spirit of the work, the deep curiosity and exploration and wonder exhibited here. I also appreciate the multi-genre aspect: not only a book of photos but a travelogue, an essay collection, a scientific textbook (a few of the things reviewers call it). And “intensely personal” throughout!

I saw some of the work on display at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn—and yeah, the photos are beautiful, but that’s not the main reason this resonates with me. After studying photography for years (double-majoring in film/photo in college) I eventually came to feel something was missing, partly in how it was taught and partly in how I actually made work. And I haven’t done much serious “fine art photography” since. This book, though, is inspiring in showing how photographs and written texts can be powerfully combined and mutually-reinforcing. Photography shouldn’t have to stand alone to tell a story or have impact.

Additional information:

  • ISBN: 978-0226057507
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press

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