Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Review: Mariposas Nocturnas, by Emmet Gowin

In June 2015 Maureen and I took a belated honeymoon vacation in Honduras, spending an exhausting and immensely rewarding week at the Lodge at Pico Bonito. Although technically the “off-season” we planned the trip with birds in mind and our days were filled with hiking steep, muddy slopes through saturated rainforest air in addition to various day-trips into dry forest, river, and botanical garden habitats. While the high points of our trip were certainly the many charismatic birds and mammals we’d craved, one my most enduring memories is of our nightly visits to the mothing station. Beneath the lodge’s mercury vapor lighting we meticulously photographed each and every species we encountered, hundreds of individuals. Knowing nothing about their taxonomy, life history, status or distribution, we were merely captivated by the wild and wide-ranging diversity of colors and forms.

For weeks afterward I’d tried to put names to each moth, despite the lack of a really good, comprehensive reference. But those attempts at cataloging were beside the point for me. What it really boiled down to was an excuse to carefully study our photos again and again, to organize and reorganize them. Which brings me to Emmet Gowin’s Mariposas Nocturas: Moths of Central and South America, A Study in Beauty and Diversity. This coffee table book is a celebration of everything that so captivated us during our hours at the mothing station in Honduras. It provides a showcase for hundreds of these nocturnal Neotropical Lepidoptera; moths of every size, shade, posture, texture.

Each page is laid out in a grid, 25 photos to a grid. Unlike a field guide, this book is presented with an almost entirely aesthetic approach to organization; the arrangement was determined by whatever photos happened to work well together (though, generally, each grid represents the time and place in which the photographs were taken). The moths themselves are living subjects that Gowin manually oriented against a background of his choosing – backgrounds often selected from art history, including works by Degas, Matisse, William Blake – thus setting up spectacular color contrasts between the moth and its background, producing a work that is visually stunning, page after page.

Of course the main attractions of the book are the Neotropical moths themselves, in their near-infinite variety. Sphinx moths, geometers, flannel moths, wasp-mimics, saturniids – they’re all so different from one another, and all marvelous in their own way! Gowin’s artistic eye captures this diversity wonderfully. To reiterate, this isn’t a field guide. In fact, the only information you will find about each moth is its scientific binomial, along with family and subfamily names, the year it was first described to science, and the person who described it. Moths that are arranged near one another on the page are probably not closely related, and may not even be found in nature together. Instead, this book is about appreciating moths as natural works of art, something you’re bound to start doing from the moment you first look inside.

The book’s introduction by author and activist Terry Tempest Williams is…odd. Williams has an impressive resume, and I admire her advocacy on behalf of public lands in particular. But her interest in moths verges on the mystical. At various points she invokes priests, spiritualists, prayer, the Virgin Mary, and sacred texts, all of which I found entirely unncessary, even distracting. Much more interesting is Gowin’s afterward. Here the photographer chronicles how this project developed in partnership with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and how his vision of it evolved over 15 years of gathering material, providing behind-the-scenes insight for this labor of love.

For me, this book will always remind me of that mothing station in Honduras where we first stood transfixed by the overwhelming beauty and diversity of Neotropical moths. Hopefully Mariposas Nocturnas will be the beginning of a journey for others, helping foster a passion for these insects that are too often and unfairly overlooked or maligned. Or, if nothing else, Emmet Gowin’s book looks great on a coffee table.

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