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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."

"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.

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"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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