Daily Picture Show

Hunting For The Oldest Living Things In The World

Whenever I hear about the discovery of a new fossil or dinosaur bone, the duration of my existence is thrown into perspective. That's the exact response that artist Rachel Sussman is hoping to prompt with her collection of the "Oldest Living Things In the World."

  • Jomon Sugi, Japanese Cedar #0705-002 (2,180 to 7,000 years old; Yaku Shima, Japan).The photo that started it all. Sussman was advised by several people in Japan to visit the Jomon Sugi.
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    Jomon Sugi, Japanese Cedar #0705-002 (2,180 to 7,000 years old; Yaku Shima, Japan).The photo that started it all. Sussman was advised by several people in Japan to visit the Jomon Sugi.
    All photos by Rachel Sussman
  • Welwitschia Mirabilis #0707-22411 (2,000 years old; Namib Naukluft Desert, Namibia). This plant has adapted to its desert environment and gets its moisture from the adjacent sea.
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    Welwitschia Mirabilis #0707-22411 (2,000 years old; Namib Naukluft Desert, Namibia). This plant has adapted to its desert environment and gets its moisture from the adjacent sea.
  • Searching for Armillaria Death Rings # 1106-1129 (2,400+ years old; Malheur National Forest, Ore.). This is the largest living organism in the world, but it's hard to see because it is mostly underground.
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    Searching for Armillaria Death Rings # 1106-1129 (2,400+ years old; Malheur National Forest, Ore.). This is the largest living organism in the world, but it's hard to see because it is mostly underground.
  • Siberian Actinobacteria #0807-tV26 (400,000 to 600,000 years old; Niels Bohr Institute, Copenhagen). This is the oldest living specimen so far in Sussman's series.
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    Siberian Actinobacteria #0807-tV26 (400,000 to 600,000 years old; Niels Bohr Institute, Copenhagen). This is the oldest living specimen so far in Sussman's series.
  • Brain Coral # 0210-4501 (2,000 years old; Speyside, Tobago). This is one of the most recent photographs in the series.
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    Brain Coral # 0210-4501 (2,000 years old; Speyside, Tobago). This is one of the most recent photographs in the series.
  • "Bristlecone Pine #0906-3033" (Up to 5,000 years old; White Mountains, Calif.)
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    "Bristlecone Pine #0906-3033" (Up to 5,000 years old; White Mountains, Calif.)
  • "Creosote Bush #0906-3905" (12,000 years old; Mojave Desert, CA)
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    "Creosote Bush #0906-3905" (12,000 years old; Mojave Desert, CA)
  • Lichen R. Geographicum #0808-04A05 Approx. 3,000 years old; Alanngorsuaq, Greenland). Sussman said her time in Greenland was "like traveling back in time."
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    Lichen R. Geographicum #0808-04A05 Approx. 3,000 years old; Alanngorsuaq, Greenland). Sussman said her time in Greenland was "like traveling back in time."
  • Sentinel Tree #0906-1318 (2,150 years old; Sequoia National Park, Calif.)
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    Sentinel Tree #0906-1318 (2,150 years old; Sequoia National Park, Calif.)
  • Spruce Gran Picea #0909 – 6B37 (9,500 years old; Fulufjallet, Sweden). The location of the tree is known to very few and Sussman had to promise that she would not reveal it to anyone.
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    Spruce Gran Picea #0909 – 6B37 (9,500 years old; Fulufjallet, Sweden). The location of the tree is known to very few and Sussman had to promise that she would not reveal it to anyone.
  • Sagole Baobab #0707-1086 (2,000 years old; Limpopo province, South Africa)
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    Sagole Baobab #0707-1086 (2,000 years old; Limpopo province, South Africa)
  • Underground Forest #0707-10333 (13,000 years old; Pretoria, South Africa). This underground forest is larger than it appears because it is photographed only above ground.
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    Underground Forest #0707-10333 (13,000 years old; Pretoria, South Africa). This underground forest is larger than it appears because it is photographed only above ground.

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"My main driver for doing this work is really to have to think about sort of bigger-picture things — everything from environment to existentialism," Sussman said over the phone.

She got the idea for this series during a trip to Japan five years ago. "I had gone to Japan with no real agenda — just knowing that I wanted to photograph. And ... people kept telling me, 'You have to go visit this tree that's called Jomon Sugi that's 7,000 years old.' "

After a two-day hike, Sussman found the tree. When she relayed the story to friends back home she realized that if she combined her interests of photography and art with nature and science it would make a great series.

She usually contacts researchers and finds new subjects to photograph on her own, but sometimes she learns of them by chance encounters. At a New Year's Eve party, for example, she once met a biologist who had been on a team that discovered a certain bacterium. This biologist connected Sussman to another biologist, who told her about a lichen in Greenland, and suddenly Sussman had a series in the works.

"It sort of felt more like traveling back in time than just going up north," she said about Greenland. "The remoteness of it and the landscape there is so primal."

Traveling across the world can be a time- and money-consuming endeavor. When she is not living out of a suitcase, Sussman concentrates on her artwork or does professional work to pay for future trips.

She notes that many of the subjects in her photographs are smaller than what the viewer might think. For example, the Armillaria fungus is actually the world's largest living organism. But since it is mostly underground, it does not appear that way in the picture. Some of her subjects are found in fringe environments where almost nothing else grows. The Welwitschia, for example, is uniquely adapted to the Namibian desert and gets its moisture only from the adjacent sea. She finds a certain poetic quality in the subjects' ability to adjust to extreme environments.

At times Sussman has had permission to touch the plants, especially if they are in a public area. But occasionally, the locations of these plants are so secretive she has to convince scientists that she will be professional. In her blog, she notes that she had to promise the biologist connected with the clonal spruce in Sweden that she would not reveal its location and that she would take extra care while photographing it.

She hopes to photograph about nine or 10 more subjects for her series (unless, of course, there is a new discovery). She plans to photograph 5,000-year-old moss in Antarctica; to capture sea grass colonies in Spain that date back almost 100,000 years; and to document clonal shrubs in Australia and Tasmania.

Sussman's series is part of the "31 Women in Art Photography" exhibit in New York City. The exhibition celebrates 31 of the most inventive women in new art photography and can be viewed through April 10. You can see more of Sussman's work on her Web site.

Priscilla is an illustrious intern in NPR's multimedia department.

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