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Photographer presses importance of preservation

Award-winning photographer Susan Middleton thought it was a “fortunate coincidence” that both exhibits, the “Remains of a Rainbow: Rare Plants and Animals of Hawai‘i” and the latest, “Archipelago: Portraits of Life in the World’s Most Remote Island Sanctuary,” happen to be on the same island at the same time.

Middleton is half of the photography duo with David Littschwager.

The “Rainbow” exhibit captures the endangered species living in Hawai‘i, and “Archipelago” is specific to natural species from the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.

“It started out as this obsession with photography,” she said of the projects. “The initial challenge was to see if these plants and animals could stand alone as a work of art the way a portrait does. It was sort of this personal evolution for me where I was an obsessed photographer turned obsessed conservationist.”

Middleton said she and Littschwager found themselves getting attached to their subjects and developing a passion for preserving them.

“We’re both passionate conservationists. We care a lot about the safety and conservation of our subjects, so we work with biologists and botanists,” she said. “We take our cues from them. In the case of the native plants, they would guide us with where to step without disturbing their roots.”

In the case of the animals, the two worked with biologists to create an aquarium for the creatures to swim in.

“The biologists would get the animals out of the water and place them into this aquarium and we would put this plain black or white backdrop behind them and photograph them,” she said. “But we would only keep them out of their natural environment for as long as the marine biologist said it was safe for. If they said it was time to put them back in the water, we would let them go.”

Aside from the challenge of getting the subjects to photograph, it was a challenge for Littschwager and Middleton to get the perfect shot. Because they shoot with Hasselblad cameras, and not digital cameras, they don’t have the advantage of viewing their subjects before they leave them or let them go.

To curb that, they use a Polaroid method, which they sometimes call the “paranoid” method. This gives them the ability to peel back a layer to peak at the picture to see what they’re going to get.

“What we would typically do is do a couple Polaroids with a stand-in and that works as sort of an insurance policy to make sure we got the right shot,” she said. “Because of the detail we want (for the photographs), the digital media is just different.”

She said the Hasselblad cameras they use capture such detail that transfer well onto a big screen for projections.

She will be presenting two separate slide-show presentations on them. The presentation on “Archipelago” is tonight at the Kaua‘i Community College Performing Arts Center in Puhi at 7 p.m. and the “Remains” presentation is tomorrow at 11 a.m. at the Kaua‘i Museum on Rice Street in Lihu‘e.

“The single most important motivation for these projects is trying to give these plants and animals a face and bring awareness to the public,” she said. “It’s like I’ll be taking people on the road with us, where we went and how we did what we did. It needs to be shared via film, photos and storytelling.”

“Remains” was preciously featured at the KCC Library and has since moved to the Kaua‘i Museum. “Archipelago” now fills the KCC Learning Resource Center.

Lanaly Cabalo, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 237) or lcabalo@kauaipubco.com.

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