Flight of the Moth

FLUTTERY swirls enchant and captivate, such as the sprays of golden leaves outside the window.

When photographer Emmet Gowin was growing up in Danville, Va., he found himself thus entranced by the forbidden plume coming off the back of a DDT truck. These days, he is drawn to flights of moths, just as they are drawn to flame.

Harry Callahan, Mr. Gowin’s mentor with whom he studied at the Rhode Island School of Design in the ‘60s, had Eleanor, his wife and model. Mr. Gowin has Edith, his wife and collaborator. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, he photographed her, along with sons Isaac and Elijah, in their native Danville, capturing an Appalachian simplicity and way of life, with old barns, rural landscapes and bedrooms with metal-rail beds and gauzy white sheets.

These days, he photographs Edith in Panama or Ecuador or Bolivia, surrounded by moths and their illuminated flights. He has even created a kind of Indonesian shadow puppet theater in the tropics, bringing Edith’s ageless beauty and presence to a new world, a new era.

A professor of photography at Princeton University since 1973, Mr. Gowin in spring 2010 to pursue his photographic study of moths in central and South America.  He is one of several artists whose work is now on view as part of Art Speaks at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa.

“The turning point for Emmet, when he was a student at RISD,” says Princeton University Art Museum Curator of Photography Joel Smith, happened when “his draft number came up, and he returned to Danville with film holders Callahan had given him, but neither could be sure there was film in them. He visited Edith’s family’s house (Emmet and Edith married in 1964) and her niece Nancy wanted to be photographed in the grass with her dolls. She led him to a place and set them up.” Fortunately, for what was to follow, there was indeed film in the camera.

Mr. Gowin filed for Conscientious Objector status in 1967, after earning an MFA from RISD, and produced a series of portraits of his extended family in Virginia.

When Elijah and Isaac were boys, he would read aloud to them from The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre. “…in little ways our family began to pay attention to the presence of insects in our lives, noticing the little gemlike moths that were attracted to grandmother’s porch light every summer,” Mr. Gowin writes in Mariposas Nocturnas – Edith in Panama (Pace/McGill Gallery, 2005). “With the exuberant help of the children, we collected or counted almost a thousand different species of insects in our two-acre Virginia yard and woods over a single summer.”

The boys filled a small cigar box with insects they collected from the windowsills of a barn. Mr. Gowin borrowed the box and sprinkled the contents over the pages of a derelict book, and his photograph “Artful Genealogies,” made in 1976, may have signaled the beginning of the work he is doing with moths now.

But in between the domestic portraits and tropical insects, Mr. Gowin compiled a major series of aerial photographs showing the devastation to our planet: the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington, nuclear test sites in Nevada, circular patterns of pivot agriculture, based on gigantic rotating irrigation devices. And all the while he was photographing the destruction of the Earth, Mr. Gowin was in pursuit of beauty, using hand-toning techniques to render visually pleasing works of art out of environmental ruin.

“A theme of his teaching has been, Take advantage of unpromising surroundings you’re in, you know about them in ways others don’t and can’t speak about,” says Mr. Smith.

But, after a while, the large-scale, long-term destruction became too sad for Mr. Gowin, and he remembered his fascination with night creatures. “I want to produce a two-volume set of tropical moths of Central and South America, little miniature portraits,” he says from a room in the basement of 185 Nassau St., where he is curating an extemporaneous exhibit of his students’ work.

The colorful insect portraits are set up in grids, five across and five down, using his intuitive sense of color and design, rather than any botanical principles, to organize them. He has created 27 grids thus far, spending 10 years learning tropical biology, and hopes to complete 100. “When I get to 50 I will publish the first volume,” he says. He is trying to keep each grid “species fresh,” although occasionally he will find one so visually arresting he will repeat it.

Biologists think there may be 200,000 moths, he says, and most are not named. The beautiful ones have names, because they have been collected. Only between 20 to 30 percent of moths have been named. “They haven’t been duly understood,” says Mr. Gowin.

Although he may occasionally collect a butterfly to bring to a colleague, his focus is on moths because “butterflies are known; there are only about 20,000 species worldwide.”

Make no mistake, these are not dead moths: “They are alive and alert,” he says. “The way their bodies posture is beautiful and means something. They have postures for alarm and display their bodies to reveal something frightening – such as curving the abdomen to show banding, a universal display of toxicity.”

Live, they can fly off, but refrigeration can be used to cool them down so they are less interested in flying – although that also inhibits the body posturing he is after.

He travels to the deep forest, where there has never before been light. Edith often accompanies him, and he may go for a month at a time to a research station. “The productive period is on the dark side of the moon, just 14 days, half of a moon’s cycle, so we may spend two weeks setting up,” he says. “During the full moon nothing flies but the wasp.”

He uses a white collection sheet, as well as leaves, twigs and other materials against which to photograph the moths. He also has a supply of pieces of wood painted bright colors for backdrops. He has even brought books of artwork against which to photograph them. “Slowly I learned what I could touch and what I had to photograph right where it was,” he says.    Mr. Gowin began the project, using a 35 mm camera, on film transparency but after a while switched to digital along with an electronic strobe that can freeze the moth’s motion for that second.

“The things I photograph are things I haven’t seen before,” he says. “When I go to Panama I see absolutely new species that have never come into the light… I found I could photograph flight at night, and can see the pulse, the wing strokes of the insect.”

On one particular expedition to Panama in 2001, Edith was unable to accompany him, and without anyone to stand in front of the light to block it and enable him to see light, he made a tracing of Edith. “I worked all night and could feel the day coming on – the sun rises at 6 a.m.,” Mr. Gowin recollects. “I stuck the cardboard tracing on a railing and the moths and beetles crashed into a circus. I could see her shadow on the collection sheet – it unlocked memory, and everything about my life, her presence in my life – it was as if she were there. I was so stunned by her presence, but it was just a shadow of cardboard.

“I know shadows and Indonesian puppets, but I didn’t expect it to sneak up on me,” he says of the work that followed – a series of shadow puppets made from his life with Edith, against a collection sheet with moths.

The Gowins still return to Danville – they own a house there – but “The Danville of our youth is gone – for us, going there is like living in the studio (where I made those pictures in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The house we stay in) has the feel of a 1916 farmhouse, so it suits us.”

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One Response to Flight of the Moth

  1. edith says:

    I had a dream I flew to the moon and watched the stars, then I took the Discovery shuttle down, I was the pilot!

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