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Thomas Gaffield (1825-1900) investigated the patterns on the wings of the butterflies (notice the bodies are missing). He was well aware that various chemical compositions in manufactured glass caused changed color overtime and suggested certain kinds of glass for the skylights in photography studios. (Courtesy of Smithsonian National Museum of American History)

From Smithsonian: Butterflies, Just Because

by Shannon Thomas Perich
Jul 27, 2011

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These 19th-century magic lanterns might have been used in a lecture. Each image would have been projected as the operator pushed the slide through the magic lantern projector. The images are photographs of drawings that have been hand-colored. These 19th-century magic lanterns might have been used in a lecture. Each image would have been projected as the operator pushed the slide through the magic lantern projector. The images are photographs of drawings that have been hand-colored. Daguerreotype of a lepidopterist (butterfly collector), circa 1850

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Shannon Thomas Perich

Butterflies are perhaps nature's most appealing insects. Their delicate wings are engineering marvels. Their colors and patterns are a pleasure to behold. Why, we are even willing to create gardens and immersive exhibits in which we hope butterflies will simply land on us. There is no other insect that holds such allure.

Recent NPR blogs have featured microscopic photographic examinations of insects and I wondered what the Photographic History Collection held in terms of butterflies; here's a small selection. I found that, like photography, butterflies sit at the intersection of art and science.


Shannon Thomas Perich is an associate curator of the Photographic History Collection at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Her regular contributions to The Picture Show are pulled from the Smithsonian's archives.

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