The Butterfly Hunter

For four years, beginning in 1969, my father lived out an unlikely fantasy: he became a butterfly collector. (We use the term collector but that is just a euphemism for hunter.) Butterfly hunting is a conflicted activity, a desire for beauty and a small act of violence, both justified by science. Preserving something by taking its life. As a child he had idolized the Victorian era’s explorers and naturalists, in particular Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s forgotten partner in the discovery of Natural Selection. The ship carrying Wallace’s entire collection of Amazonian specimens (four years’ worth) caught fire and sank into the Atlantic before reaching Europe, and in turn history overlooked him. After my father’s death, more than three decades after they were collected, I inherited a large trunk full of butterflies, over 2000 of them. Unopened since they had been captured, each one was still meticulously labeled and wrapped in the papers he had available to him at the time: American magazines, local newspapers, letters and his own notebook pages.

I began to sift, slowly, through his collection, as though it were an archeological treasure or encoded messages from another time. Through the dates and place names I traced his course – Sumatra, Timor, Singapore, Colombia, Amazonas – and began to see how, as our parents’ children, we are each tied to the history of the events that we missed. I see him, each night returning to a small, sweaty, mosquito-netted room, sorting and labeling the day’s boon to the hum of an electric fan. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War was raging, the Nixon administration was self-destructing, student revolts were flaring around the world and he was folding the headlines of these events into hundreds of origami-like envelopes to hold his Lepidoptera specimens.

The desire for quantity in an archive or collection suggests an inherent link between loss and accumulation. In the aftermath of loss, both personal and cultural, we gather up the objects and traces left behind, compile and examine them as though these material things can tell us something about what has happened to us. Perhaps this impulse is a way of taking inventory of our loss, measuring, through objects, the size of the void.

I have thought a lot about preservation, and what it means to try to preserve something—an insect, a person, a story. As I gently touch and photograph these butterflies they shed colorful wing scales, lose antenna and limbs, dissolve in my hands. As with so many things worth preserving, it seems that the act of examining them makes them disintegrate. The instinct to preserve something often means that we covet it and keep it hidden away, but I have found that objects can exert their will on us and preservation can become a burden. Rather than covet my father’s collection I wanted to share it, let go of it. For this reason, when I first exhibited this work, I gradually gave away every image in the piece to gallery visitors. Perhaps this gesture of dispersal can be a form of preservation, one that lifts the weight off of one person and trusts in the collective. - Klea McKenna

The Butterfly Hunter was first exhibited as an interactive photographic installation in 2008 and was later made into a limited edition artist book available HERE.