Mariposas Nocturnas: moths of Central and South America: a study in beauty and diversity was Charcoal Book Club’s photobook of the month for April, 2019. Once again—and it’s done it many times before and since, and hopefully for many months to come—Charcoal sent me something I wouldn’t have acquired on my own, and am happy enough to have it in my collection. Interestingly, it’s a sort forms the beginnings of a collection and has led me to recategorize one of the old books in my collection.

After finally getting the chance to photograph around the Nevada Test Site and falling into a depression over the sorts of things we humans like to do to one another, what we like to spend our money on, the destruction we gleefully cause, Emmet Gowin cast about for something beautiful to focus his camera(s) on. What did he find? Well, Mariposas Nocturnas, that is, butterflies of the night, that is, moths in the rainforest of northern Panama.

Gowin managed to get himself attached to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, working with scientists and naturalists, and spent a few years figuring out how to photograph the moths. He initially produced 5 grids of 25 different moths, for use as poster advertisements for the STRI, and secured a long term arrangement with the STRI by writing up a proposal to create an additional 95 of these grids, that is, to photograph 2500 unique species of moths, and create 100 of these grid poster things.

There’s no indication that he made it that far. Maybe he did. His lovely afterword doesn’t mention a total count, and does indicate that there is some duplication in the 51 grids included in Mariposas Nocturnas (25 images * 51 grids = a max of 1275 unique moths), but is silent on the actual totals.

The STRI project ended in 2010, when the Panamanian State closed the mine and area where Gowin worked to any and all tourism and foreign research. Perhaps that’s why the count is off? Who knows, and why am I hung up on the count?

Why? Well, many years ago, an aunt and uncle moved out of their modest home in the Dallas suburbs and into a small cabin on a remote mountaintop in northwest Arkansas. They were forced to downsize considerably, and my mom stored a bookshelf and a bunch of books that had belonged to a relative of my uncle (I don’t recall the specifics). When he, my uncle, passed away, I snagged a few of the books before they went wherever they went, and I managed to hold onto a few of them, including a copy of a 1936 catalog of butterfly pictures, Splendeur des Papillons, with text by Colette. (Yes, that Colette.)

Despite differences in size, production and reproduction quality, and the like, Mariposas Nocturnas and Splendeur des Papillons are quite similar: they both show the beauty of Mariposas (one the daytime, butterfly variety; the other, the nighttime, moth variety); they both have some sort of utility to specialists, perhaps, but are mostly pointed towards the popular imagination; they both have introductions by famous authors (Colette and Terry Tempest Williams). If I read French better, I bet Colette’s text would give Tempest Williams’ excellent writing a run for its money. Mariposas Nocturnas is laid out in a way that makes finding the Latin names somewhat easier (in Splendeur… they’re all grouped on one page early on), perhaps making it easier for specialists, though the size of the book, and size of the individual images in each grid, would make it impractical for field work; Splendeur des Papillons is too old and fragile, and was really something for a gift shop more than anything, and my copy is at least 70 years old,* so the “useful for field work” benchmark is moot.

There are some crucial differences, of course, some more critical than others. First up: most all of Gowin’s subjects were living, if a bit stunned or slowed; the butterflies in Splendeur… are all dead, on loan from some lepidopterist’s collection. So Gowin’s photographs have a vitality and and variety that the photographs of pinned specimens just can’t. But, then, the sheer size of the reproductions in the Splendeur… catalog beat the rather tiny reproductions in Gowin’s grids. Then, there are Gowin’s backgrounds: leaves, bits of painted wood, twigs, give way rather early on to large scans of old master paintings, images from a book of Civil War injuries, children’s drawing, and other sorts of images that Gowin felt drawn to. These provide an additional bit of interest that the grey/green fabric bits in Splendeur… don’t really have, and without distracting from the beauty or interest of the moths themselves.

One further difference that I just realized: Splendeur des Papillons is a slim book about the beauty of butterflies, and it contains single images of 2-5 butterflies, printed not-quite full bleed; Mariposas Nocturnas is a collection of 51 posters that Gowin made to advertise the work at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute…

I mean, sure, there are 1275 images of nearly that many unique species of Panamanian Moths, all made by Emmet Gowin using all of his training and understanding. But these photographs were then arranged in grids that work on their own, not as groups of images, but as works in themselves, and it’s these works that we have in Mariposas Nocturnas, or maybe, at best, both of these that the book presents.

These grids, like the tiny images that make them up, and well designed, if a bit hard to view. Where the moth pictures are sorta too small to really study, and my eye is easily pulled from image to image, the grid is hard to see as a unified whole. I mean, I can sorta cross my eyes and appreciate the layout, but if I focus, the various little moth pictures tug my eye this way and that, much like a moth (or butterfly) flits around, and it’s this idea that makes the book work for me…


It’s an interesting book, and one that, with its orange dust jacket, will make a great addition to my bookshelves, and overall, I rate it a good-enough 3.5 stars.

Mariposas Nocturnas is available direct from the Princeton University Press and from the secondary market. You can also readily find Splendeur des Papillons with a little bit of work (bookfinder can’t seem to see it on eBay or Abe or Amazon), and for about the same price as used copies of Mariposas Nocturnas. Not bad for a 70-90 year old trade book, really.

*My copy of Splenduer… has a 1936 copyright date, but I know various editions and printings came out, all with different covers, some as late as the mid 1950s, and I have no idea which one mine is.

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