Schultes' Amazon Turns Science into Art Richard Evans Schultes visited uncharted lands in search of science and came back with art. His photographs, now on display at the Smithsonian, offer hypnotic insights into the birth of ethnobotany.
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Schultes' Amazon Turns Science into Art

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Schultes' Amazon Turns Science into Art

Schultes' Amazon Turns Science into Art

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Back now with Day to Day. In Washington, an exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History provides hypnotic insights into the expeditions of a Harvard professor who wandered through the Amazon decades ago.


Right now, our colleague Alex Chadwick is away. He's currently wandering in Africa, but he left us this. It's the latest in his series about photography, called Photo Op.

(Soundbite of the Amazon)

ALEX CHADWICK: I've seen this place. I've heard it, too. The vast and mysterious forest, the old earth. The Amazon. Life untamed, birds, enormous insects, plants grown past anything I've seen before.

This is where Richard Evans Schultes went exploring back in the early 40s. He was a Harvard botanist, sent by the government that could no longer get rubber from trees in Southeast Asia, rubber that was needed for the war.

He wound up helping to build the field of ethnobotany, studying how remote tribal people learned the medicinal and hallucinogenic properties of the flowers and vines that grew everywhere. He sampled many of them. And he photographed them and the people who used them. Big, soft-focused images in blacks and whites and grays.

A Smithsonian botanist who helped create a new exhibit, John Kress, studied under Professor Schultes after he returned to teaching.

Dr. JOHN KRESS (Botanist, Smithsonian Institute): There's a number of hallucinogenic snuffs that the native people of the Amazon Basin and other places take. They use various barks and woods and carve them in the powders and mix them with various kinds of things and flowers and fruits. And then, much like we would snuff tobacco or tobacco snuff, they blow this into each other's noses, and it gives a very hallucinogenic and a very rich experience.

CHADWICK: And this is the source of shamanism and insight into explaining how the world works and the magic of the world?

Dr. KRESS: I think so. Think of being a native person in the Amazon 100 years ago. Your universe was the plants and animals around you, as well as the other people in your village. Everything was attributed to those plants and animals, and the shamans were there to help heal the local people. But also, I think, to give them some spiritual guidance, as well.

CHADWICK: What about the photographs that we see here. Why do these pictures even exist?

Dr. KRESS: Schultes was a botanist, but he also was an adventurer and, in many ways, an artist. And he took this camera along with him, a Roloflex camera, four-by-five negatives, high quality. He always took the photos on a tripod. He was there to not only document the plant life but the culture that was in the Amazon at that point. And this exhibit is really about Schultes the person, the botanist, Schultes the photographer and the cultures and plants of the Amazon Basin as they were a half century ago.

CHADWICK: Botanist John Kress. His co-creator, Chris Murray, runs a well-known Washington gallery, the Govinda, which specializes in photography. Professor Schultes, Chris says, made photos for scientific purposes, but he must have known they also went well beyond that.

Mr. CHRIS MURRAY (Owner, Govinda Gallery): The extraordinary thing about Schultes' photos is that he's primarily a scientist, yet here, he brought into the Amazon jungle a Roloflex camera. And with that camera, he was able to capture photographs that have the criteria of fine art photography.

The compositions were beautiful. When he was photographing landscapes, he would choose dramatic, spectacular subjects. His photographs of peoples were sensitive and intimate. He has the qualities of a great artist.

CHADWICK: Let me ask you about a particular photograph here. This is a photograph of three boys in a dugout canoe. They're out on a river. And the dominant figure is standing in the canoe, and he's got a bow with a very, very long arrow.

Mr. MURRAY: One of the things that strikes me about Schultes' photos, including this one of these three young Amazon natives, is that it speaks to the sense of wonder. And also, when one is growing up and a young person, and they're out with great adventures, there's a sense of adventure in this photo. Here are those young boys with clearly very lethal bow and arrows and canoeing in their homemade canoe.

It looks like something, as a kid, we used to do. We used to go into the rivers and lakes and get in a canoe and maybe make a make-believe bow and arrow. And here are these kids who are doing it for real. And so this particular photo evokes that sense of wonder and that sense of adventure that I think we all felt growing up as children. And here these children are, indeed, actually doing what we in our imaginations and fantasies were making believe we could do.

CHADWICK: But there's something else here. And that is that these boys are almost naked. They have a little string and a tiny cloth covering their genitals. But it's also like the figure of David, as a piece of art, it's just...

Mr. MURRAY: There's an exquisite beauty in these pictures of these youth from this area and from this period. And it's actually the thing that first drew me to these pictures that made me realize that a wider public would be fascinated to see them. In fact, there's one of the three boys standing by a waterfall, which is the photo I saw.

I said to myself, Bruce Weber, the great photographer in New York, who does the Ralph Warren campaigns and Calvin Klein, I thought if so many famous photographers who, if they saw this material, they'd say that's amazing. Because actually, there's a sensual quality, almost a sexiness to some of the images here, in terms of the wonderful natural surrounding and the energy of the water pouring over that waterfall, and the boys just casually standing there in their habitat, completely native and natural. I saw this photo, and I said, Bruce Weber, Calvin Klein. I said, if they saw this photo, they wouldn't believe it. How great it is and how beautiful and sensual it is.

CHADWICK: Chris Murray, one of the curators of an exhibit of photos by the botanist Richard Evans Schultes. It's at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History in Washington. The exhibit and a book of images are called "The Lost Amazon," and we have some of the images at our website, For Day to Day, I'm Alex Chadwick.

(Soundbite of the Amazon)

COHEN: Day to Day is a production of NPR News, with contributions from I'm Alex Cohen.

BRAND: And I'm Madeleine Brand.

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