To most people, moths are an anathema–pesky buggers that have a voracious appetite for packed away winter clothes. Their drab, gray appearance and fuzzy bodies earn them little sympathy. Unlike their more glamorous, effete cousins, butterflies, they seem to be positively boring, inelegant creatures.
But for Jim des Rivières, a software developer and hobbyist photographer, moths have an edge over butterflies: They’re ever more interesting, varied, and surprising. Since 2002, des Rivières has caught and documented the winged insects in all their brilliant diversity and humorous nomenclature, from the Big Poplar Sphinx to the Once-Married Underwing and Ferguson’s Scallop Shell. During that time, he has caught 2,000 specimens and catalogued the nearly 300 different species of moths native to and around Ottawa, Canada, des Rivières’s home, in astonishing high-res portraits.
A fraction of these are currently on display at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, as part of the exhibition, Winged Tapestries: Moths at Large. The images capture the subtle, unappreciated beauty of moths that, at first glance, may easily escape most viewers. But when magnified 10 to 30 times, the arresting geometric spotting and brilliant iridescent hues take on an auratic presence and an incredible, fractal-like depth that, in des Rivières’ estimation, “will make you fall in love with moths.”
The project actually grew out of des Rivières’ interest in butterflies, which he caught and photographed for two years before becoming attracted to the less storied members of the Lepidopteran order. His gaze wandered toward the Ottawa region’s large moth population, which far outnumbers that of the area’s butterflies. “There are more than 10 times as many moth species as butterfly species,” he tells Co.Design. “And many of our moths are bigger and more colorful than our butterflies.”
Initially, des Rivières traveled as far as 50 miles outside of Ottawa’s urban center to source his moths. He devised a portable setup he hitched to the back of his truck; it consisted of just a few simple components–a small metal armature, a tall black fluorescent light fixture, and a single white bed sheet. The assemblage process took all of five minutes, leaving des Rivières to wait for moths to descend. (They’re attracted to light.)
More recently, he relocated to a small cottage deep in a desolate forest just 16 miles north of the city. With a fixed location, he has been able to set up shop just outside his living space, which lets him periodically check on his “trap line” throughout the night. The moths pour in between 10:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. “I patrol the trap line with a flashlight that I can use to inspect the colors and patterns on the moths close up,” des Rivières says.
When he comes across a particularly interesting catch, he carefully transfers the specimen to a pill bottle and briefly stores it in the fridge. The cooling period disables the moth, calming it before its next and final stage of life: what des Rivières calls the “killing jar.” He lowers the moth into the vessel, which is perfumed with toxic fumes. After about 20 minutes, he recovers the winged cadaver and, working fast and delicately, lays them out flat to dry for one to two days, depending on the size.
The moths have to be perfectly flat, with both wings on the same horizontal plane, for the scanner to render all of the insect’s attributes faithfully. Once they are dried and laid prostrate, des Rivières places them wing-face down on the glass surface of his Epson 4870 flatbed scanner. Why a scanner instead of a camera? “Desktop scanners are remarkable tools, and easily outperform high-end DSLRs that cost many times more,” des Rivières explains. They also yield repeatable results, making it easier to establish an aesthetic baseline for the project–in the case of Winged Tapestries, a colorful and strangely shaped moth suspended in a pitch-black void.
A single portrait can take several hours to process, and only then does des Rivières review the work for the first time. He scrutinizes each of the digitized moths, combing over their features with the help of his dog-eared copies of Papillons du Quebec and A Field Guide to Moths of Eastern North America. After he identifies them, he searches for photographic irregularities or compositional flaws. “Capturing the details in the images is key, because the high level of detail is one of the aspects that makes the large prints so intriguing.” If, say, one wing is out of focus or a portion of spotting blurred, the moth has to be repositioned and re-scanned.
Following this time- and labor-intensive process, des Rivières has caught some 2,000 specimens, amassing a huge catalogue that he feels is representative of his native soil. Still, des Rivières hopes the show takes on a more universal meaning: “I hope people come to realize that biodiversity is not something exotic. Our own backyards hold creatures every bit as wondrous, precious, and irreplaceable as the tropical rainforests.”