nothing less than a miracle

William Henry Fox Talbot, Photomicrograph of moth wings, ca. 1840; Calotype negative.

Primitive moths appeared 195 million years ago.  Since then, more than 150,000 species of moths have evolved in diverse colors, shapes and sizes. At 75, Emmet Gowin has been photographing all kinds of subjects for 50 years. For the past 15 years, he has traveled to Central and South America 40 times, spent hundreds of hours at institutions looking at moth specimens and photographed 1000 moth species.

Edmmet Gowin

Gowin spoke about his work photographing moths Wednesday night at the New York Public Library.  Briefly introduced by Joel Smith, Curator of Photography at the Morgan Library and Museum, Gowin took his seat, held up a clipboard with a yellow post-it note on it and said, “These are my notes.” He didn’t need any notes.  Gowin spoke for an hour without interruption.

This was the first slide Gowin showed. An early image of himself and his wife, Edith from the early 60’s.

I have a pretty good BS meter.  Energized is not the word that expresses how I felt when I left the talk.  Gowin is probably the most joyful speaker, I can ever remember listening to. In relation to the above photograph from the 60s, Gowin said “It’s what you do when you’re young that you can trust.”

Emmet Gowin’s photograph, “Edith, > Christmas, Danville, Virginia, 1971

“If I hadn’t married, Edith, you would never have heard of me.”

Frederick Sommer was a mentor to Gowin. “The only way to understand something is to be confronted by something that is difficult to understand.”  Frederick Sommer

What was the fascination of his 15 year moth voyage:  “The possibility of something unknown that will appear in your presence.”  Gowin talked about the beauty of these insects with pleasure, delight, glee, and exuberance bordering on euphoria.  
” I was asked to make a poster for the scientists I was traveling with so they could understand what I was doing.  I made the poster in the form of a grid.  I realized the grid put the viewer in charge.  The grid asked the viewer to solve problems, make comparisons, it became a learning process and the format for all the moths photographs. These same scientists told me  that a book that did not identify the moths by name was not worth making”.  Gowin spend countless hours at the Smithsonian (second largest insect collection in the world) going through their extensive specimens to identify all the moths in his 50 photographic grids.

“In a creative undertaking, if anything works, it’s a surprise.”

You feel like a pinpoint in the world.”

“Only chance can be trusted.”

“The wonder of being sheltered under a large leaf from the rain.”

“Real, Real Beauty is here on earth and it’s impossible without the forest.”
– Emmet Gowin


Emmet Gowin
Here on Earth Now – Notes from the Field
September 28, 2017 – January 6, 2018
Pace/MacGill Gallery
32 East 57 St.
Learning from Nature:  Moth Eyes Inspire Nonreflective Screen Coating

Matthew 6:19

Come bumble-footed ones,
Dust squigglers, furry ripplers,
Inches and squimmers
humble in gray and brown,
find out our secret places,
devour our hearts,
measure us, geometer, with your curved teeth!
Leaves lick at the window, clouds
stream away
yet we lie here,
locked in our dark chambers
when we could rise in you
brief, splendid
twenty-plume, gold-
spotted ghost, pink scavenger,
luna whose pale-green wings
glow with moons and planets
at one with the burning world
whose one desire is to escape itself.

Katha Pollitt
from the New Yorker, April 20, 2009



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: