About the Photographer
American, b. 1975
Since 2004 Rachel Sussman has been traveling the world to photograph organisms aged 2,000 years and older for her ongoing series, The Oldest Living Things in the World. The project began on a trip to Japan, during which Sussman photographed a cedar tree known as Jomon Sugi on the island of Yakushima, fabled to be over 7,000 years old (but in actuality around 2,200 years old). Later she decided to seek and photograph more organisms that were at least 2,000 years old, an age she chose with the idea of starting at year zero in human history and working backwards. Sussman researches suitable candidates using the internet and word of mouth, and she works closely with biologists, who study the specimens, to locate and learn about them. In cases where scientists are not studying the specimen, she relies on local knowledge to estimate the organism’s age. Many of the organisms are uniquely adapted to extreme climates and grow very slowly, such as the Siberian Actinobacteria, which has been alive for 400,000 to 600,000 consecutive years. Experts generally estimate that modern humans first appeared on earth around 500,000 years ago, meaning that these bacteria may have originated even before our species. This unfathomable amount of time evokes a sense of wonder and existential contemplation in comparison with the relatively short span of human history. She says about the series, “I think of all of these organisms as palimpsests. They contain thousands of years of their own histories within themselves, and they also contain records of natural and human events.” Sussman also insists on an environmental message since the organisms she photographs are vulnerable to climate change. In the case of the Siberian Actinobacteria, when the permafrost melts, the oldest known living organisms on the planet will die.
Rachel Sussman completed a BFA in Photography at the School of Visual Arts, New York, NY (1998), and started a practice-based research PhD in fine art at Central Saint Martins, London, UK (2008-2009). Previously she studied at St. Mary’s College of Maryland (1994-1995) and in the MFA photography program at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY (2008). Sussman has exhibited internationally, including solo shows of The Oldest Living Things in the World at the Berlin Botanical Museum, Germany (2010-2011); Montalvo Arts Center, Saratoga, CA (2010-2011); The Discovery Museum, Bridgeport, CT (2008-2009); and Michael Steinberg Fine Arts, New York, NY (2008). She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Creativity for Change Grant, Sculpt the Future Foundation (2011); Featured Visual Artist, Charter for Compassion Launch, TED Prize Event, Brooklyn, NY (2009); Residency and Artist’s Fellowship, Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, VT (Fall 2006); and Evelyn Stefansson Nef Fellowship, The MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, NH (Fall 2005). Sussman spoke about The Oldest Living Things in the World at the TEDGlobal 2010 conference in Oxford, UK. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.