Rhipha flammans. August, 2008, La Fortuna, Chiriquí Province, Panama.
Photograph by Emmet Gowin / Pace/MacGill Gallery / © Emmet and Edith Gowin
The moth doesn’t enjoy the same charmed reputation as its lepidopteran
cousin, the butterfly. With a handful of exceptions—the Japanese movie
monster Mothra, a moody late work by van Gogh—moths are dismissed as
pests, waging war on our sweaters when they’re not dive-bombing the
lights. The insects even got a bad rap from Jesus: in the Sermon on the
Mount, Heaven was praised for being moth-free. But with his
kaleidoscopic project “Mariposas Nocturnas,” the American photographer
Emmet Gowin does for the moths of Central and South America what the
influential German duo Bernd and Hilla Becher once did for the water
towers of Western Europe, transforming an apparently lowly subject into
Gowin’s latest project was fifteen years in the making. He photographed
more than a thousand species on visits to Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador,
French Guiana, and Panama, in the company of etymologists. Another man
might lie back on his laurels at this stage of his career, but, at
seventy-five, Gowin is breaking fresh ground: this is his first work in
color. A onetime student of Harry Callahan, Gowin is renowned for his
lush way with a black-and-white print. First came the tender pictures he
took of his wife and family, beginning in the nineteen-sixties, followed
by a pivot, in the eighties, to dramatic aerial scenes of ravaged
landscapes, which have the allure of abstractions, despite the fact that
they detail a planet in peril.
A collection of Gowin’s photographs from “Mariposas Nocturnas,” taken in February, 2007, at the Integral Forest Otonga, El Reventador, and Otongachi Reserve, in Ecuador.
Photographs by Emmet Gowin / Pace/MacGill Gallery / © Emmet and Edith Gowin
There’s a similar conservationist bent to “Mariposas Nocturnas,” which
celebrates nature’s inexhaustible knack for art direction. But such
biodiversity is under threat, where Gowin was working, by development
and deforestation. So it adds to the visual thrill of the series to
learn that nearly all of the specimens were photographed while they were
alive. The models were lured at night by artificial light and captured
on film when they landed on surfaces supplied for the purpose.
Initially, Gowin collected painted pieces of wood; eventually, he began
arriving with reproductions of art works by Degas and Matisse (among
others). The original source of each background is indecipherable in the
final result, but it adds depth and texture that heightens the sense of
each moth as a unique marvel of ornamentation.
Moths fly by night and Gowin’s project is, at its heart, about drawing
his jewels out of the shadows. In this sense, “Mariposas Nocturnas”
returns full circle to the invention of photography itself. The first
known camera-based image of a moth—a pair of lacily patterned wings—was
made using a microscope, circa 1940, by William Henry Fox Talbot. In his
book’s afterword, Gowin writes that working with moths “overwhelmed me
with the feeling that I was being graced by a visit from an otherwise
“Mariposas Nocturnas: Moths of Central and South America, A Study in Beauty and Diversity” will be published this month by Princeton University Press. An exhibition of Emmet Gowin’s work will be shown at Pace/McGill Gallery from September 28th through January 6th, 2018.