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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 11, 2001

Photographs capture Hawai'i's endangered plants, animals

By Virginia Wageman
Advertiser Art Critic

Those of us living in Hawai'i — land of romantic swaying palms, brilliant rainbows and gorgeous beaches — know we're in paradise.

 •  'Remains of a Rainbow'

• Where: Honolulu Academy of Arts

• When: Through Dec. 30

• Information: 532-8700

The plant and animal species that found their way to these shores millions of years ago, before there were any humans here, also found themselves in paradise. They quickly adapted to their new home, often evolving into defenseless creatures, like birds that lost their ability to fly and plants that lost their protective odors.

When the first Polynesians arrived some 1,500 years ago, they brought with them predators that threatened native species. Early settlers altered the landscape, destroying habitats for native plants and animals. Even more destructive was the arrival of Westerners in the late 18th century.

Today, at least a quarter of the plants and animals on the U.S.endangered species list are in Hawai'i, which, according to the photographers David Liittschwager and Susan Middleton, is the endangered species capital of the world.

Traveling to remote corners of the Islands, far beyond where tour buses run, Liittschwager and Middleton have photographed some 140 species native to the Islands, as well as their habitats. Treks have taken them to the Alaka'i wilderness area on Kaua'i, the highest swamp in the world, to razorback ridges accessible only by helicopter and to the Honolulu Zoo, where they photographed the rare Hawaiian stilt and the Hawaiian hoary bat.

The photographs, on display at the Honolulu Academy of Arts in an exhibition titled "Remains of a Rainbow: Rare Plants and Animals of Hawai'i," are intimate portraits of Hawai'i's endangered species, most of them found nowhere else.

Liittschwager and Middleton spent five years researching and photographing rare native species and habitats in Hawai'i, and each breathtakingly exquisite photograph represents at least a day's work.

Only plants and animals native to Hawai'i have been photographed. Native is defined as having reached the Islands on their own, with the help of only the wind, water or birds.

In most of the photos, visual distractions have been removed by placing the plants and animals against a solid black or white background, as in much portrait photography. The resulting image tends to make the plant or creature seem all the more vulnerable by its isolation.

The backgrounds are not computer simulated but are actual backdrops that the photographers carried into the field with them. For insects and spiders, they built small glass boxes that limited their movement. (They emphasize that insects seem to feel comfortable in confining spaces.)

The photographers are particularly sensitive to the uniqueness of Hawaiian culture, writing in the exhibition's catalog that "for the culture to authentically survive, the natural environment in which it evolved must also survive."

Their photographs serve not only as stunning depictions of endangered species, but also to heighten awareness of the fragility of Hawai'i's native culture, which stands to be lost along with the flora and fauna if we do not act now to preserve it.

Among the plants photographed close up are a rare silversword growing in Maui's western mountains; endangered varieties of hibiscus; the alula, found only on a sheer Napali cliff; and the creamy white gardenia called a nanu in Hawaiian.

At least one plant image is 24 times actual size, allowing us to see the colors and textures of delicate petals and blossoms that normally are barely visible to the human eye.

Insects, many only recently identified, include a variety of spiders, the beautiful Kamehameha butterfly and an iridescent Maui beetle.

Especially appealing are the birds, including the nene, Hawai'i's state bird, as well as a Hawaiian crow, a delicate Laysan finch, a Hawaiian honeycreeper with tawny orange feathers, and the 'io, or Hawaiian hawk.

Liittschwager and Middleton's work was documented in the Emmy Award-winning TV documentary "America's Endangered Species: Don't Say Goodbye," which will be shown at the academy at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. The film "May Earth Live," about the Hawaiian rainforest, will be shown the same evening.

Also in conjunction with the exhibition, Eddie and Myrna Kamae's "Listen to the Forest," which focuses on traditional Hawaiian values, will be screened at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 12. For information about these and other films and lectures related to "Remains of a Rainbow," call 532-8700.

• • •

Ben Norris watercolors

Concurrent with "Remains of a Rainbow" and on view through Feb. 24 are watercolor paintings of Hawai'i's rain forests by Ben Norris, exhibited in the academy's new Luce complex.

Nine large paintings are displayed, several in fine detail that appears almost photographic.

Others are more impressionistic, especially the two titled "Inside the Rainforest," with splashes of color and dappled light.

Norris, professor emeritus in the Department of Art, University of Hawai'i-Manoa, is clearly a master of his medium. The paintings are sublime.

Virginia Wageman can be reached at VWageman@aol.com.