I’ve always liked butterflies, but then who doesn’t? They are such beautiful, improbable natural wonders.
My relationship with butterflies became something deeper about sixteen years ago when we bought our house - the first time in my adult life I could garden. So many years of student and city apartments, so many hours in corporate jobs that provided precious little time in the sunlight, finally had an outlet in our small, sunny yard.
Every weekend I dug beds and threw myself into planting vegetables and flowers with the enthusiasm of a hopeful beginner. The more time I spent in the yard, the more I started to notice the butterflies. The more I noticed them, the more I researched them to learn their varieties, and then the more I noticed more of them. In time, in their season, I sensed them - everywhere. Call it Baader-Meinhoff Phenomenon - that interesting combination of frequency illusion and confirmation bias - or something more cosmic and spiritual if that’s your inclination, but suddenly I couldn’t not see them.
I noticed butterflies flitting across the road ahead while driving, I spotted their shadow patterns on the grass and automatically fixed my eyes with laser-like accuracy on the shadow’s source in the air above my head. I became familiar with the dozen varieties that frequented my garden, and started planting their favorite foods to encourage them to bring friends.
When I got interested in photography, about eight years ago, marrying these two enthusiasms was a natural evolution. At first I was out in the yard with my digital point and shoot every time I spotted floating color from the house windows and somewhere on a hard drive, I have the lousy photos to prove it. I graduated to a DSLR and got closer. One summer I was obsessed with my macro lens, another year with a lensbaby, in a particularly difficult year for my family I was drawn exclusively to the broken and battered ones - undeterred from their beautiful work no matter the magnitude of their battle scars. And then about four years ago, I started shooting film.
By this point, I’d observed their behaviors long enough to make the exercise of photographing them with a roll of 36, later 16 frames, possible and not the pure folly it would have been when I first began. Here’s some of what I’ve learned. Never, ever chase a butterfly. Be still, watch where they prefer to feed, and wait for them to return. They almost inevitably will. Get your shadows behind you - avoiding predators’ shadows is one of their self defense mechanisms and if they sense yours they will scoot. For that matter, watch your lens reflections and avoid sudden movements that kick up the slightest shift in airflow on the leaves and petals on which they rest. Butterflies are attuned to sudden environmental changes, and will move out of reach at the slightest threat.
If you are still, and patient, and calm, they are often happy to let you admire them. I have spent countless days in my garden, going about my business, communing with a particular butterfly or other. It feeds, it flies, it circles my head and settles at my feet laying eggs on a clover flower, it flies off and returns again. It may choose to humor with me a few photos, and then move out of reach, letting me know the photo session is done. They can be prima donnas, but they know how to pose when they’re in the mood.
The photos included here are from this years crop of butterflies and most, though not all, were made in my backyard.