11 December: Extinction

Date #11Like moths to a flame are photographers to light.

A friend visiting yesterday asked “How does anyone make a living from photography now?”

Indeed, it was announced exactly a month ago on Remembrance Day this year, that the 75 year-old Australian Institute of Professional Photographers, after a slow decline for the past decade, has ceased to exist, joining the Australian Centre for Photography and the Michael’s Camera chain in closure.

The organisation admitted publicly that over 700 members, struggling against the impact of smartphone photography, of the expense of keeping pace with advancing technology, and of social media, and now COVID,  could no longer pay their membership fee, cutting off the major revenue for the AIPP.

Is the professional photographer an endangered species? 

There are other, incipient, extinctions to which we need urgently to pay more attention.

Prof. Eric Warrant Aestivating (dormant) bogong moths cluster together during summer on an alpine cave wall near South Rams Head in Kosciuszko NP. There are about 17, 000 moths per square metre of cave wall.

The Australian Broadcaster ABC reports the Bogong moth as being recently added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) “Red List of Threatened Species”. This has come after years of decline in numbers accelerated by drought in 2017 and disastrous bushfires ravaging their habitat through 2019/20 as shown in recent research by Green, K., Caley, P., Baker, M., Dreyer, D., Wallace, J., and Warrant, E., published in 2021; “Australian Bogong moths Agrotis infusa (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae), 1951–2020: decline and crash.” in Austral Entomology, 60: 66– 81.  

aen decline

Their research results,

“taken together with observations by Ian Common in the early 1950s, suggest that the Bogong moth population was stable until the early 1980s but since then has fluctuated, and on average slowly declined, until crashing over the last 2– 3 years. This rapid decline has probably had a deleterious impact on the health of the alpine ecosystems of south-eastern Australia which depend on the massive influx of energy and nutrients that Bogong moths provide via their summer migration to the mountains (4929 GJ of energy, 7.2 tons of nitrogen and 0.97 tons of phosphorus: Green 2011).”

They reason that major factors in contributing stresses on the insects include insecticide used in agriculture and climate change causing unusual weather events including winds that blow them off course in their migration and excessive heat killing them during hibernation in mountain caves. Others have suggested that city lights lead the insects astray or disorient their quite extraordinary navigational capacities. This is a theme of Felix Wilson‘s Nocturnal Ecologies, in which he quotes Scott McQuire’s 2008 “Immaterial architectures: Urban space and electric light”;

“…the fusion of light and movement rapidly became a hallmark of the modern city, establishing a spatiality which is both exhilarating and potentially disorienting to its inhabitants. What emerges for the first time is an other city, an oneiric city which exists only at night and whose dream forms have only tenuous  connections to the prosaic spaces of the waking day.”

Felix Moths
Felix Wilson (2019) from Nocturnal Ecologies, Perimeter Press.

The moths’ decline has in turn affected other species, especially the Mountain Pygmy Possum which consumes Bogong moths almost exclusively in Spring, as revealed by scat analyses in 2011 by Gibson et al. (2018)

For thousands of years in Australia, a wide range of insects has been food for Aboriginal groups, in particular the larvae (‘witchetty grubs’) of cossid moths of arid and semi-arid areas and the seasonal consumption of Bogong moths by mass gatherings of Aboriginal groups in the southern portions of the Eastern Upland. The longevity of the latter traditional harvest has been proven by Stephenson, B., David, B., Fresløv, J. et al. who in 2020 published their discovery of “2,000 year-old Bogong moth (Agrotis infusa) Aboriginal food remains, Australia,” in Nature. They found

“microscopic remains of ground and cooked Bogong moths on a recently excavated grindstone from Cloggs Cave, in the southern foothills of the Australian Alps. These findings represent the first conclusive archaeological evidence of insect foods in Australia… insights into the antiquity of important Aboriginal dietary practices that have until now remained archaeologically invisible.”

Such a rare motif in the work of famous painters — for example Vincent Van Gogh — what is the moth to photography?

Giant Peacock Moth Vincent van Gogh (1853 - 1890), Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, May-June 1889
Vincent van Gogh (May-June 1889) In May 1889 Vincent wrote to his brother Theo, “Yesterday I drew a very large, rather rare night moth there which is called the death’s head, its coloration astonishingly distinguished: black, grey, white, shaded, and with glints of carmine or vaguely tending towards olive green; it’s very big. To paint it I would have had to kill it, and that would have been a shame since the animal was so beautiful.” Later he decided to paint the moth after all, using his drawing as a model. Van Gogh called it a ‘death’s-head moth’ and depicted a kind of skull on the back of its body. It was actually a giant peacock moth, however – a species that has only stripes there.https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0189V1962


William Henry Fox Talbot (probably 1840 ) Wings of a Lantern Fly, seen through the solar microscope, salt print from photogenic drawing negative [Schaaf 1484] 10.4 x 11.7cm.


Henry Fox Talbot (c.1840) Wings of a Lantern Fly, Salted Paper Print 10.1cm x w 12.7cm. Provenance: Matilda Talbot 1934. Collection: Science Museum Collection

Henry Fox Talbot‘s 1840 microphotograph of lantern fly wings, is the first lensed image of them and in a letter dated 10 May 1853 (published later in the Journal of the Society of Arts) he described his photomicrography to Samuel Highley, Jr.:

“The first person who applied photography to the solar microscope was undoubtedly Mr. Wedgwood…but none of his delineations have been preserved, and I believe that no particulars are known. Next in order of time to Mr. Wedgwood’’s, came my own experiments. Having published my first photographic process in January, 1839, I immediately applied it to the solar microscope, and in the course of that year made a great many microscopic photographs, which I gave away to Sir John Herschel, Sir Walter Calverley Trevelyan, and other friends….The process employed was my original process, termed by me at first ‘“Photogenic drawing,’–– for the calotype process was not yet invented. I succeeded in my attempts, chiefly in consequence of a careful arrangement of the solar microscope, by which I was enabled to obtain a very luminous image, and to maintain it steadily on the paper during five or ten minutes, the time requisite. From the negative, positives were made freely, in the usual way. The magnifying power obtained was determined by direct measurement of the image and the object itself, which gave for result a magnifying power of seventeen times in linear dimensions, and consequently of 289 in surface. The definition of the image was good. After the invention of the calotype process, it became of course a comparatively easy matter to obtain these images; and I then ceased to occupy myself with this branch of photography, in order to direct my whole attention to the improvement of the views taken with the camera.”

Lepidoptera occupied American Emmett Gowin over fifteen years, and Olive Cotton, like Van Gogh, and both at the end of their lives, depicted moths. Her image preserves for us the remarkable Bogong moth migration from southern Queensland, western and northwestern NSW and western Victoria to the Australian Alps. The sheer number of them was a memorable phenomenon for my generation as children. I can remember my father having to drive our little Singer car without headlights due to their crowding of his view, under a full moon almost obliterated by their multitude.

Cotton Bogong Moths
Olive Cotton (1995) Moths on the Windowpane, silver gelatin photograph. Courtesy Cotton Family and Josef Lebovic Gallery

Helen Ennis in writing her biography of Cotton refers to the image as symbolic of transition; “an active and unending relationship between different forces, between darkness and light, inside and out, and between the material and immaterial worlds.”

Harry Nankin in order to convey the sensational gathering of moths summons the words of Anna Funda in her semi-fictional historical thriller All That I Am:

. . . The ceiling is black—it is moulting and velvety . . . the bogong moths have come in on their migration and lined the place. The room shimmers with brief, misdirected life. I am a vessel of memory in a world of forgetting. I sit under the canopy of moths. It is deep dark outside. Everything out there . . . has vanished. The world has shrunk to a small area of light from the streetlamp. Lines of rain slash through its bright cone. The bogongs are welcome here . . . 

Nankin has since 2011 recorded the moths’ arrival in the Alps using camera-less photography with electronic flash to make photograms of them in flight and in social clusters, later digitally rendering the images as positives in which the legs of the lepidoptera clinging to the emulsion in-situ appear sharp and their beating wings blur. Their fragility, and their thinning ranks, are made poignantly evident. 


Harry Nankin (2016) Moth Liturgy 1. Pigment ink jet print on archival rag paper. Image 54 x 198 cm

We live on the precipice of extinction.

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