For many years I ran a field station in Amazonian Peru. The station was a five-hour canoe ride from the nearest road, and every Friday our boat made the long trip upriver carrying crates of groceries, drums of gas for the generator, a mountain of scuffed-up backpacks and duffel bags, and the latest crop of scientists. The station buildings sat on a high bluff that looked a long way down the river, and late Friday afternoon I would begin to hear the buzz of the outboard motor when the boat was still a tiny comet-shaped object rounding the farthest bend. By the time I made it down the long wooden stairway to the riverbank, the sunburnt boat driver was pulling in with his sunburnt passengers.
Of the thousands of people who stepped off that boat during my time at the station—ornithologists, limnologists, philanthropists, schoolchildren, gold miners, filmmakers—one I still puzzle over with some regularity is Thomas Struth, a fine art photographer who worked at the station for a few days in 2005. I had never heard of Struth, but I had seen enough photographers come through the station to know they were usually looking for something specific. Struth seemed different. On his first day I showed him a map of the area and pointed out some of the most photogenic sites around camp. He replied in a quiet way that those places sounded very interesting and that he would very much like to visit them, but that he would probably not take his camera. At first I understood it to be a logistical problem, because he was traveling with a camera the size of a suitcase. But that wasn’t the reason at all.
He was after something else. For a long time I didn’t understand what it was, and he and his assistant couldn’t explain it to me, apart from observing in stilted English that they were “searching for complexity.” I gave them a trail map and left them to their own devices. It was no skin off my nose. I had plenty of other things to keep me busy at the station, including a shortage of roof thatch, a pile of unanalyzed data, half a dozen underperforming solar panels, a 2-year-old, and an infant.
Then there were the scientists. Some of them were there because they had a newfangled notion about white-lipped peccaries, whereas others wanted to know which flowers a particular butterfly fed on in the dry season, and all of us were burning to write up whatever we learned in some technical journal that, years later, an associate professor might glance at on his coffee break. We even had some honest-to-God eccentrics on hand, including a primatologist who had over the years piled up in her cabin what was surely, at that time, the most comprehensive collection in the southern hemisphere of Soap Opera Weekly. Now someone wanted to take pictures of complexity. Shrug—back to the laptop in my cabin—because there were more of these people coming next week, and they needed someone to tell them where to get on the boat.
I might never have figured out who Struth was and what he was doing at the station if he hadn’t offered to give a talk about his work in our weekly lecture series. Lectures were held in the dining room, after the dinner dishes had been cleared away. We had a fancy projector that looked out of place in the middle of the Amazon, and one of those screens that rolls up like a window shade. When everything went smoothly it felt like you were attending a lecture at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. When things did not go smoothly we lit candles and slapped at mosquitoes until Leo got the generator running again.
Struth started the talk by showing a selection of his best-known photographs, a half-dozen images that are familiar to museumgoers around the world. He was facing a tough crowd, though. Most of the people in the audience that night were museumgoers, but we had been going to a different kind of museum—the kind in Lima or Cusco where the night watchman lets you in after hours so that you can sit up late surrounded by stacks of pressed plants, trying to decipher your handwriting in a muddy field book, where the Plaster-of-Paris dinosaur in the foyer is missing a foot, the doorjambs are covered with schoolboys’ initials, and the cleaning lady hasn’t had a raise in years. Most of the audience would have felt more comfortable in a lecture on the phytogeography of the nutmeg family. As we sat there in the tropical night looking at Struth’s pictures—looking at pictures of parked cars in Düsseldorf; looking at pictures of tourists in the Louvre; looking, for Christ’s sake, at a German family in their living room—we couldn’t help but wonder what on Earth had prompted us that evening to saunter over to the grimy median that separates art from science and see what was happening on the other side. The pictures kept coming. Through the window we could see our colleagues over in the lab building: the happy ones who had chosen to skip the lecture and were contentedly measuring out formalin into tuna fish cans.
Struth, for his part, was also ill at ease. For one thing, in the dark dining room the lit-up projector screen was attracting moths. This was never much of a problem during scientific talks, when anything that landed on the screen provided some decoration to the log-scale axes. But the photographs Struth was showing seemed to focus on stillness, and they were images that he knew down to the finest detail, and he must have found it unsettling to discover a ctenuchid moth fluttering in their corners. Time after time Struth would call up a new photo, step back to appreciate it, and then rush in, arms waving, to scare off a moth. Some of the moths would take flight, and some of the moths would stay where they were. Some turned out not to be moths at all but brown spots left behind by the cockroaches that inhabited the screen between lectures.
Eventually he got to a series he was calling “Paradise.”
The full article appears in the Summer 2014 Nautilus Quarterly. Subscribe today!
Nigel Pitman is a tropical botanist based at the Field Museum. His work on South American plants has appeared in Science, Ecology, and Conservation Biology, and his non-scientific writing has been published in Orion, DoubleTake, and Sage. He recently finished a 9/11 novel set entirely in the Amazon.
The lead photograph is entitled “Paradise 29” and was taken by Thomas Struth in Madre de Dios, Peru, in 2005.