A Merlenesque story [<i>In memoriam</i>]

Letters from the library

#23. A Merlenesque story [In memoriam]



Godfrey Merlen was one of the scientists with the largest and longest presence at the Charles Darwin Research Station ― and in the Galapagos.

His particular silhouette was easily recognizable from afar in Puerto Ayora. It is the same with his work, which appears everywhere among the collections of the CDF Library, Archive & Museum: it is relatively easy to recognize his eye behind the camera that took this or that slide.

And there were many of his slides: boxes and more boxes. During one of his last visits to the CDF library ―he always seemed to enter the room with some shyness, maintaining a sepulchral silence even if the room was empty― he confessed to me that what he had donated to our institution was only a fraction of all the photos he had taken in the islands during his many years of work. I wanted to know how many of those images there had been; I don't remember precisely the exact number, but it did make me giddy. In fact, I said to myself, betraying all my library and archival interests and values, that I thanked all the gods of Olympus and Valhalla that the photographer had not donated his entire collection to us: I would not have known where to keep them or how to process them.

One of the first things that struck me about Merlen's photographs were some of his annotations. In general, the frames of his slides are riddled with data that allows for easy and correct identification of the contents ― something that, sadly, I can't say about the rest of the photographers. A handful of them, however, did not make the artist inside Godfrey happy. And there, in those plastic or cardboard frames, the author left scribbled comments that show a kind of perfectionism: suggestions to his other self (the one shooting the camera) to adjust the light or the focus here, or the contrast there...

A considerable part of the digital and open-access publications produced by the CDF Library, Archive & Museum as part of the "Memories of Galapagos" series are selections of Merlen's photographs grouped thematically and complemented by historical texts. These pictures reflect the good taste and sensitivity of the person behind the lens, but also his ability to quickly detect the small details: those that often go unnoticed by others.

Details that he did not only capture through photography. Back in 2018, when I was just beginning to go through the many boxes of archival materials accumulated at the CDRS, I stumbled upon a typed sheet containing a short story, authored by Merlen. I don't know why Godfrey wrote that text, nor its destination: it was probably a paper that would circulate among his coworkers in Puerto Ayora, back then when there were no social networks or WhatsApp groups.

In the story, Godfrey said that he was walking along one of the trails at the Darwin Station when he heard a group of tourists chatting in English as he passed by. One was asking the others if there were any "snacks" around. A woman replied that she thought there was a machine nearby that sold them. The questioner looked at her, between astonished and frightened. Then he repeated the question, but this time adjusting his pronunciation: what he wanted to know was if there were "snakes" around.

Merlen closed his text, I seem to recall, by imagining the tourist imagining a coin-operated machine that dispensed snakes.

[The photograph shows some of the slides from the Godfrey Merlen collection, housed at the CDF Archive].

  Keywords: History of CDF | History of Galapagos
  Subject categories: Memory | Photos
  Time framework: 1980


Text & picture: (edgardo.civallero@fcdarwin.org.ec)
Publication date: 1 October 2023
Last update: 1 October 2023