Joseph Scheer: Confessions Of A Moth Man

Butterflies may get more press, but to Joseph Scheer, nothing is more beautiful than the misunderstood moth. By his own admission, he is obsessed with the moth and with the release of his book Night Visions—The Secret Designs of Moths, Scheer hopes to elevate

the status of this underrated insect. Scheer comes from a printmaking background, but like many contemporary artists, he has worked across many mediums:drawing, painting, and photographic processes, among others. He is not a scientist and had no formal training in biology or environmental science prior to his work with moths. But to hear him talk excitedly about the myriad species he has documented since 1998, you’d think thathe has been studying the moth for decades.cheer completed his graduatework in art at the University of New Mexico and joined the faculty of Alfred University in 1989. The next ten years was a time of rapid changefor the art world as the burgeoning technology of the era (Photoshop, publishing tools, etc.) became readily available. In response, Scheer and two of his colleagues founded the Institute for Electronic Arts in 1997 to expose students and faculty to opportunities in art and technology and to solicit grants from industry to fund the purchase of hardware and equipment. Scheer could never have imagined that the technology he was promoting would lead him to an in-depth study of this primal creature.

Photo Insider (PI): How were you introduced to the process of scanning these moths?

Joseph Scheer (JS): Well, I actually started with a gnat! [laughs.] One of the first pieces of hardware received by the institute was ahigh-resolution scanner with an Iris printer. Once the scanner was set up, it needed to be tested for the first time. There was a tiny gnat flying around the room. So I grabbed the gnat and threw it on the scanner and thought, Let’s see what this thing can really do. When the image came up, it was amazing. I was completely blown away.

PI: What struck you? Was the detail of the insect’s anatomy clear?

JS: The compound eyes, the hair all over its body, and the metallic wings just took me by surprise, and suddenly a whole new world opened up. Here were all these things around me every day. I wondered what else was out there.…We printed the image out on the Iris, and it was stunning. The access I had to these powerful tools and the curiosity about what other insects might look like…

PI: …made you want to play with this new toy!

JS: I came up with the idea that if I worked all summer long, perhaps I could collect 200 different species of insects and create a series called “Things That Fly” or something like that. I had just a basic idea when I started out.

PI: How did you go about finding these insects and actually catching them?

JS: I got a pile of insect collecting books and did some reading to see what I could find in the area. I got some butterfly nets and ran aroundlooking at all the buzzing things flying by. Things were everywhere! I started to pay attention to the bees and wasps and beetles and dragonflies and the tons of things that are out there. I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I collected everything. I thought I was going
to be lucky to get 200 species over the course of the summer, but as it turned out, at the end of two weeks I had over 500. The insect world was so much bigger and diverse than I thought.

PI: How did you know what you caught, and what did you do with all the specimens?

JS: A lot I never identified. It was getting crazy. There was such a hodgepodge that I started to just categorize them by color or size. But as I was going through them, the insects that intrigued me the most were the moths.

PI: And just to clarify, you had never had any experience with moths prior to this project?

JS: Moths would always fly into the art building during the summer and land on the windowsills. I would pick them up and keep them in a dish on my desk. Every year, I’d add more moths to it. I was fascinated by how colorful and large some of them were. I had tried in the past to do something with them with a low-res scanner, but it never came our
right. I didn’t become obsessed until the technology caught up with what I was tinkering with. [laughs.]

PI: Don’t get me wrong, but did your students think it was weird that you had this pile of moths on your desk at school?

JS: At art school? No way. People collect strange things all the time there. This would really be something pretty common. There’s a lot of weirder stuff going on there…[laughs.]

PI: Okay, the big question, out of all the different kinds of insects out there, why moths?

JS: As an artist, I was attracted to moths not only because they are amazing and beautiful, but because there is loaded imagery and symbolism in moths. They’re creatures of the night as opposed to the butterfly, which are creatures of the day. People are more afraid of moths. They dismiss them as small, ugly gray/brown things that mess up your food and
eat your clothes. And of course the idea that they are attracted to light, to the flame, is a powerful metaphor. Think of what exists at night: the night culture, the club scene, the ecstasy scene, the punk scene—that’s not part of mainstream culture. We would rather gloss over that part of society, pretend its not there. For me, the moth is the symbol of all that. Something that is quite beautiful, that only comes out at night, that’s short-lived and has this intensity and then its gone.

PI: Once you made the decision to focus specifically on moths, did your methodology change? I assume it was more focused.

JS: I limited myself to the species of moths that existed on this one
place on the planet, near the university. Then it became a real
obsession. I would go out every single night to find new moths and
spend the day scanning. Literally, there were thousands and thousands of moths to choose from. Among those, I found close to 1,200 species.

PI: Wow. Just there in upstate New York?

JS: Yes. Over the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve learned about how the
environment affects what types of species will show up any given summer. I began to see that just up here in New York State, if the weather is different one year, you’ll see moths that you’ve never seen before. Full moons, the time of the month, the types of plants around,
all these factors determine which moths show up. There’s a complexity to their patterns that I have been learning slowly over the course of the project.

PI: When you first started the project, what were your motivations
beyond how interesting a moth looks once it was scanned?

JS: Seeing the quality of the images that the technology could create was so compelling. And there was this obsession with wanting to see all these moths. If they’re here in this world that I live in every day, why don’t I know about them? People think that these moths are from
some exotic place, from South America, because they’ve never seen a moth that looks like that. But these moths are around all the time and in such quantities! They get no attention. I felt like I had to do it.

PI: You felt almost as if you were opening a whole world to people.

JS: And opening a world for myself. I was missing a big part of the world and what exists here. It makes you think about the biodiversity that’s on the planet and how fragile it is. I needed to know what was living in my backyard.

PI: This must have changed the way you look at many other things. If there are this many different species of moths, then how many different species of mosquitoes are out there? Or dragonflies?

JS: If I had all the money and time in the world, I would document the whole spectrum of biodiversity that exists here in my area and scan the results as a database for people to study. I’ve met a lot of scientists that study moths, and they are so pleased with these images. Many say I’m opening up their world to the public. It brings attention to their
work in a way that’s presented artistically. The book is truly a celebration of moths. I’m very excited for people to see what I’ve seen.They feel that my images help broaden the appreciation and recognition of the preciousness of children, and our responsibility to care for them.


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