An interview with Emmet Gowin, author of Mariposas Nocturnas Moths of Central and South America, A Study in Beauty and Diversity
As a photographer you’ve long been known for intimate photos of your family, and later, aerial landscapes of the American West. Can you explain your evolution from these projects to work on these stunning portraits of more than one thousand species of nocturnal moths?
There are two main factors in my evolution from images of family and landscape to this long term study of moths. Even as a child I seemed to have an interest in small things, and if the small thing was alive all the better. If I drew, the drawing was usually small. Later I came to a deep reverence for insects even if I didn’t photograph them yet. In the 1970s I used a child’s small collection of insects, found dead in the windowsill, to enliven a nineteenth century book on rhetoric. That became an important image for me, though it was a singular event at the time. Later, I worked with some neighborhood boy scouts on their insect merit badge, thus learning the basics of how a collection was built. So a respect for insects has been a part of my makeup, my curiosity, for as long as I can remember.
More particularly, my experience photographing the Nevada Test Site in 1996-97 left me at a turning point. Later I came to realize that one cannot study industrial scale agriculture, excessive water usage, and the building and testing of the atomic bomb without being changed. Three visits to the Nevada Test Site were all I could endure.
Its an important story but the next step will need to be taken by others. And all this exactly as my wife Edith and I made our first trip to Ecuador. Initially, I could not have told you what I was doing there, only that it was where I wanted to spend more time.
Can you talk a bit about the philosophy that underlies your work on this project? Was it your intention at the outset to raise awareness of the need for biodiversity?
Not so much a philosophy, although one must have one, I suppose, but the desire to turn a corner and begin to educate myself to the concerns of a working tropical biologist. Even as a beginner this seemed a critical subject and also a key time in Earth’s history. And I was about to publish Changing the Earth, in 2002. For me, a respect for and admiration for insects was already in place, but I was also interested in learning something about field biology and in getting into the field myself. Alfred Wallace’s Malay Archipelago and Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle were already important books for me.
Also, in our time even children understand the importance of loss of habitat and that the destruction of the Amazonian forest, any forest, concerns us all. At the Nevada Test Site I was stunned by just how many tests had been conducted, mostly to little real gain. I understood the history but I still felt a great shock in witnessing this destruction, mostly hidden from our view, and with such grave consequences to Americans downwind. That America had in fact bombed itself breaks one’s heart. I’ll just say that at this point I felt I had learned enough about the human willingness to destroy ourselves. Then, an almost chance visit to Ecuador opened my eyes to how I felt about the tropical forest. At first I imagined that the forest itself would be my subject, but the introduction to a research cabin in Panama in 1999 changed all that. There I recognized that the symbiotic relationship between the insects and the forest would be my way of discovery.
A nice story: After a few years in Panama I had made my first moth portrait grid. We took it to a store for framing. When our poster was collected there was an interest in selling them. “Where did you find these?” “Panama”, we said. To which the shop owner said, “No, you can’t fool me, I’m from Panama, and none of these live here. I would know.” We didn’t argue, but leaving we conferred, “I guess we are on to something here.”
What photographers have been your biggest influencers in terms of style and aesthetics?
Let me just say that it was a very small photograph that first brought me to a feeling of transcendence. I later learned it was by Ansel Adams. That photograph and that feeling I never forgot. However, the artists I really loved were a mixed lot. Of course, Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank were among the practical examples, and of course they were spiritual examples too. Walker Evans and Harry Callahan were especially dear to me, and Callahan was my graduate advisor in Rhode Island. At the same time I was introduced to the history of art and film. Both felt very important to me, but perhaps painting and drawing felt the most accessible to me then, at least until photography arrived with its particular capacity for transcendence, which was closely followed by the introduction to the miracle of the silver image and its process. I still love the process of photography.
After Callahan, Frederick Sommer was perhaps the clearest example of the possibility of combining all these interests. Sommer would say, “you have to make it to find it or you have to find it to make it,” indicating that photography in a sly way combined everything that was of interest to me. That in our search for discovery and revelation, chance and purpose were intertwined, and both could and should serve the imagination.
How (if at all) has your early interest in drawing impacted your work as a photographer?
Drawing was the first art which opened for me. I drew often as a child and loved projects in which I could add a drawing. Like all dreamy and inattentive children I drew in school when I should have been paying attention. It was an impulse which seemed to come out of nowhere, which felt so real; I knew I could trust it. I saw very little art until art school, but when I was shown the great works I knew this is what I wanted, where I belonged. When photography came along I could see that I would need to serve all the same problems and concerns of painting an drawing; the distribution of weights, configuration of space, tonality and edge, the bounding line. Within drawing and painting, it felt to me, that everything matters. By the end of my first year in art school I realized and I could serve these concerns with photography too, and it seemed to fit my nature and quickly became my constant joy.
Let me end this thought by calling attention to the kind of materials I began to carry into the tropics; most of them were copies of drawings and paintings—and the long history of graphic arts: Degas, Matisse, Picasso, Redon among the moderns and the old masters like Gruenwald, Bellini, Blake and Segurs. A small pantheon of great love and wisdom.
I’ve read you grew up in Chincoteague Island, surrounded by marshes and nature. Has that experience had a lasting impact on your work and your choice of subject matter?
Actually, our family moved to Chincoteague when I was 13 and we only lived there two years. I think I have given the mistaken impression of growing up there as that experience, beguiled as I was by the riches of the natural world, has always felt to me that it was there that I found my self, my identity, and the desire to be either a naturalist or an artist in those two short years.
How do you capture such photographs of moths, which are all, it should be noted, photographed alive? How do you keep them still?
The question of keeping them still is a bit misleading. Rarely do they stay still except for small periods when they settle themselves under a light onto the white collecting sheet. and then only until disturbed by another insect, which is quite often. Any moth I am seeing for the first time I attempt to photograph there on the white sheet to at least have a record of the species. But as my feelings were being educated by the moths I learned which I could touch, which could be nudged, which would fly with the first flash of the strobe. Some were, of course, photographed where I found them. but as I learned my way, I found I could transfer a moth to another surface with some success. Then I might have a minute to get a decent photograph. I was always aware that my chance to make a photograph could end in an instant. In Ecuador we sometimes collected moths in small plastic bags at night for photography the next day. Its a bit risky but on its leaf and with plenty of air inside, most remain calm. Sometimes these could be photographed in our motel room the next day. They could, of course, take flight, but at least we were in the same room.
Terry Tempest Williams writes in her foreword to this book, “The world is saturated with loveliness, inhabited by others far more adept at living with uncertainty than we are.” How does this idea of uncertainty play out in your work?
That “the world is saturated with loveliness” I have never doubted, but I rejoice in her finding just these words. In the late 60s and early 70s, our corner of Virginia felt something like the passage from St. Matthew—let me say it as I remember it—”unless you become as a little child, you can never enter the kingdom of heaven.” That is how I felt. At the same time we were visited each evening by images from the Vietnam war, and yet in our daily lives there were just the opposite. There was an intuitive sense that both the war and the “Kingdom or Heaven” saturated the same world, and in many ways it was chance which had placed us there, in Virginia. “Its what you do every day in the most simple way that counts,” my friend Frederick Sommer reminds us. This may sound too simple but if we could only live like this; treat everyone we meet as, just perhaps, the most important person in the world. And if you live that way, some of this feeling will embrace the butterfly, the ant, the moth.