The police officer pulled over the little dirty car heading through Joshua Tree National Park, because its driver—an unshaven male in a shabby jacket—was speeding.
What caught the officer’s eye was unusual: Five women also rode in the car, sitting upright and dressed in stunning, multicolor satin gowns.
With stiff body language, he walked toward the car, looking at the backs of the beautiful women, with their intricately styled hair. Then he noticed something else: Each female passenger in the car was wearing a spectacular pair of butterfly wings that bore a perfectly realistic image of a butterfly’s pattern, and were bobbing gently in a lifelike manner.
“Where are you headed?” the officer asked the group.
“I’m a photographer,” replied the driver, without bothering to answer the actual question; he had used those same words numerous times before to explain away potentially odd behavior. “It’s called The Butterfly Project.”
The police officer asked a few more questions, and he let the driver off with a warning. The photographer, Nathan Teutli, remembers that he and the five winged women then proceeded on to a dry, hot little patch of desert and spent the afternoon shooting.
The prints resulting from The Butterfly Project range from startling to subtle, mysterious to amusing—but they all have an intricate story behind the pretty faces. Most of the women featured are not professional models, and what started as a personal photography experiment by Teutli has turned into an international expedition embedded with environmental and societal messages.
Nathan, 35 and partially based in Palm Springs, tells me that the catalyst for The Butterfly Project occurred while he was a child. He grew up on a ranch in Mexico, and one afternoon, he fell asleep while nestled in a peach tree. When he woke up, the first thing he saw was an incredibly beautiful butterfly calmly resting on his body. He never forgot the image, he says, and when he began studying art at the Portfolio Center in Atlanta, he started work on his first pair of wings.
“They were really cool-looking, made from scraps of fabric and twisted bits of metal, but they were too heavy for a model to wear comfortably,” he says.
The wings also lacked the lifelike movement that Nathan wanted to re-create. “Then I made one out of a coat hanger and put pantyhose on it and spray-painted it, and the picture that was made from those wings and the model I put them on wound up being purchased by a private collector out of the Palm Springs Desert Museum (now called the Palm Springs Art Museum).”
Nathan was no longer the sleepy boy on a ranch; his work was being bought by collectors, and his photographs on myriad subjects were appeared in Vanity Fair, Vogue and American Photo Magazine. He was also creating a story with The Butterfly Project, a theme that developed more with each model. He created a third pair of wings that would be used in every subsequent shoot. Nathan spent hours at the Botanical Gardens in Palm Desert, sitting down inside the butterfly garden until they flew to him. He took a photograph of each butterfly and printed them onto foam boards—around 4 feet tall.
“A butterfly’s average life span is about a month, for some types a week,” Nathan says while showing me photos of the final wing set. “Since each butterfly has a completely unique wing pattern, much like a fingerprint, the wings I made from their photos are utterly unique and unlike any other.”
Soon after the final design, he gave up most of his possessions and moved to Japan for seven years. “There was a difference in the women (in Asia). When I approached one and said that I was looking for a fashion-photography model, most were like, ‘All right, I’ll do it.’ Then I told them about The Butterfly Project, and that they would represent their country in the series. Instantly, they would almost back out of the project, and say things like they weren’t beautiful enough, that there were other women who were more beautiful, and basically that they weren’t good enough for their country, because they weren’t the most attractive person there. It was sad. And they were shocked that it didn’t matter and that I still wanted to photograph them.”
There were strict guidelines for becoming a Butterfly. Each woman would represent the country in which they resided, and were chosen based on a short, casual interview. “They had to be good people, and have an interesting story as well. Some of them were breathtakingly beautiful, but after asking them a few questions, they turned out to be pretty shallow.”
One of the women is a graphic designer; another is an emergency medical technician; and one is a traveling actress in Japan. There is a deep story in each of their eyes, and those stories draw Nathan to select them.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the models is the raw background of some of the shots. Part of the point of The Butterfly Project is to startle people into realizing what we’re destroying. A shoot near Niigata, Japan, shows a once-stunning beach littered with garbage, bottles marked as containing hazardous materials, chemical containers, and plastic that washes in from North Korea. Also visible are the masses of people bathing in the water amid the trash and contamination.
Butterflies themselves are incredible creatures who aid in agricultural health, and 30 types are now or are soon to be on the Endangered Species List. Nathan says, “It’s easy to distance ourselves from disasters or poverty-stricken areas of the world when he hear it on the news, but to see a beautiful creature—this half-woman, half-butterfly, standing in front of all the ugliness—it hits people more. I hope it makes them realize what’s happening to the beauty of the world.”
Nathan hopes that he will be able to shoot one woman from every country in the world, a massive undertaking that he speculates would take more than a year and a half. However, time is the least of his enemies.
“It would take a tremendous amount of research and precaution to find models in every country, especially in the regions where photographing women may not be allowed,” he says. Nathan already has families in Russia, France, Italy, Spain and the Czech Republic who have offered him housing while he shoots.
He recalls a moment in Japan, when after shooting a model in a busy intersection, Nathan walked with the model across the street to a small café. An astonished old woman got up from her seat and gently poked the model to see if she was real, and drew sharply back in wonder when she felt the warmth of her skin. Another man stared incessantly at the man with the camera bag.
“I’m a photographer,” smiled Nathan.