Striking portraits bring the bizarre beauty of marine invertebrates to life

Published 5:15 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014

Story highlights

A portrait photographer captures marine invertebrates in gorgeous detail

Her images shows specimens photographed on the open seas

Photographer hopes photos will bring awareness of the effect of pollution on ocean life

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(CNN) —  

For a portrait photographer, Susan Middleton has an unusual studio. It’s mobile, for one thing, and it requires the subject to be confined in a small glass box. But the results are gorgeous.

In her new book, Spineless: Portraits of Marine Invertebrates, The Backbone of Life, Middleton gives jellyfish, nudibranchs, and anemones (among many others) the type of photographic treatment usually reserved for sports stars and heads of state. Shot against plain black or white backgrounds, the weird beauty of these creatures—many of them rare species seldom seen by human eyes—really stands out.

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Mind-blowing variety

Fish and marine mammals get all the attention, but there are far more invertebrate species. Scientists divide the animal kingdom into 34 major divisions. Only one of these, the chordates, comprises animals with a backbone. Many of the rest live in the ocean.

Middleton shot most of her subjects for the book on the open seas, in a studio she set up in the wet lab of a research vessel. Diving scientists brought up specimens, and Middleton photographed them inside a small saltwater aquarium. “It’s very hard to shoot animals on a ship,” she said. “I had to tie everything down.”

These formal portraits reveal more of the animals than a more traditional approach to nature photography would, Middleton says. “You see more of the animals,” she said.

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“In their natural habitat they are masters of camouflage, or they’re submerged in the sand, or they’re moving around.”

Threats to sea life

Middleton hopes the book will give people a sense of how beautiful and bizarre these creatures are. But there’s also a troubling subtext: The oceans these animals inhabit are in peril. In the foreword, noted marine biologist Sylvia Earle writes that the planet is warming, the oceans are acidifying, and species are disappearing at a faster rate than at any time since the age of the dinosaurs.

Middleton hopes her work will help people realize what’s at stake. “I’m an artist first and foremost, but I’m also a conservationist because I love what I photograph,” she said.

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