Dry ditch section [Alamy image ref. C2N7TD]

Although the above image of a piece of scraped earth sold twice shortly after I took the shot, I cannot find many inspirational words to describe accurately what it is nor why it was chosen to illustrate a subject equally unknown to me. However, I did see, stop and take it so it must have warranted a second thought.

In reality, this piece of earth didn’t look very interesting as I rushed downhill towards the supermarket at Yzures-sur-Creuse, about 10kms from where I live. It does me good to do a 20kms round trip on my fixed-gear cycle when I want a bunch of bananas. Walking across the road to shop hardly uses a dozen calories… whereas fifty slightly hilly minutes on a fixie burns off around 500 cals.

The downhill stretch into Yzeures is about 1,5kms of frantic leg thrashing (no free-wheeling possible on my bike) during which I weave around any road repairs, shallow grooves created by years of tractor traffic, and cracks from subsidence… the latter probably being the reason a digger had been digging and scraping the earth between road and farmland so that the seasonal winter rains would be able to drain-off properly without flooding the undulating, weaving thoroughfare. However, it was on my much slower, grinding, uphill exertions on my return that I noticed the rich colour and detail in the fresh excavations… so I shopped and took a couple of shots on a part of the curve which slowed the best texture revealed by the sun’s angle to the road.

Basically what I was looking at was a dry ditch… the section adjacent to the field showing bands of rich brown and yellow colours according to the depth and natural dryness and cracking after the long hot summer. By next year the soil will be covered with grass and weeds from natural seeding which will hold everything together and prevent erosion.

This kind of “break” in a field reminds me of a “Ha-ha” – a term in garden design that refers to a trench, one side “of which is concealed from view, designed to allow an unobstructed view from a garden, pleasure-ground, or park, while maintaining a physical barrier in one direction, usually to keep livestock out that are kept on an expansive estate. It also may be used to mean a ditch, one side of which is vertical and faced with stone, the other face sloped and turfed, making the trench, in effect, a retaining wall, sometimes known as a “deer leap”.

The etymology of the term is generally given as being an expression of surprise – “Ha ha” or “Ah! ah!” is exclaimed on encountering such a feature. This is the explanation given in French, where it is traditionally attributed to Louis, le Grand Dauphin, on encountering such features at Meudon, d’Argenville. Walpole surmised that the name was derived from the response of ordinary folk on encountering them and that they were, “…then deemed so astonishing, that the common people called them “Ha Has” to express their surprise at finding a sudden and unperceived check to their walk.

So a rough, hardly attractive feature that was barely worth a second look, actually sold twice after I decided to stop and take a couple of shots on passing it a second time. If I can allow myself a chuckle at my perception it would probably sound like… “ha-ha”.

The image was RM licensed twice by Alamy for reproduction up to 1/4-page in a 5,000 print-run textbooks published in South Africa for 1-year under my “Farming Today” pseudonym.

Storm clouds, sud-Touraine, France [Alamy image ref. BCWPWH]

Apparently – I’m not very knowledgeable on these matters so I looked them up on the internet – these clouds are called Altocumulus. They are dark because they hold a lot of water… and are typically seen when a cold storm front moves in.

I haven’t seem many storm fronts like this in the sud-Touraine where we generally have warm, dry seasons and on rare occasions, a light snow fall. In fact when the latter weather occurs, the salt-gritting lorries are out before dawn if there is as much as a centimetre or two on the roads!

I was aware of this storm approaching well before it arrived… the BBC  Radio 4 Long Wave programme I’d been listening to for an hour or so was being broken-up at an increasing rate by staccato crackles. When I eventually looked out of the window of the house where we were were ensconced for a year, the sky had turned from clear blue to ominous black… plus the wind was rising in strength and the atmosphere getting colder as the front approached with alarming speed.

I had taken my Nikon D300 and 14-24mm f/2.8 Nikkor wide-angle zoom which, at the time, was almost permanently fixed to the camera for my shooting style… and used at the 14mm widest setting for about 90% of the time (14mm on the D300’s sensor being the equivalent of a 21mm lens on a regular 35mm film camera). Any front-of-lens filter was virtually impossible with this lens, but recently Lee Filters have produced in limited quantities a very expensive filter system adaptable to the bulbous front element of this superb optic. However, I haven’t used filters since I went digital in 2005, and if I feel the necessity to add some extra effect to sky areas of an image I do it post-production in Adobe’s Lightroom software on my MacBook Pro.

The image was RM licensed by Alamy for reproduction up to 1-page in an editorial context in both a textbook and e-book for a 15-year period under my “Farming Today” pseudonym.

Poppy Field & Walnut tree, France [Alamy image ref. ACWKNY]

I thought it odd that this image was published mid-summer and not on the Sunday closest to November 11th as a reminder of Remembrance Day and the services held throughout the UK in memory of the millions of soldiers who have given their lives in conflicts since the Great War of 1914-18.The Poppy (Papaver rhoaes)is, of course, such an emblem of this anniversary that the day is now more widely known in the UK as “Poppy Day”. The Poppy bloomed across the WW1 battlefields of Flanders and was celebrated by the most popular poem of the period “In Flanders Fields” written by Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae.

Papaver rhoeas, however, is sometimes so abundant in agricultural fields – as in the image above – that it is mistaken for a crop, but the only species of Poppy grown on a large scale is Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy. In it’s native Europe the red Poppy is simply an agricultural weed – but a very attractive one nonetheless for nature lovers, painters and photographers.

I took this and a series of other long views, wide views, close-ups, shallow depth-of-field shots whilst on a mid-May birthday celebration cycle ride in the sud-Touraine. The vivid red flowery landscape was literally “here today, gone tomorrow” as the farmer had cut the entire field when I rode past a couple of days later.

Typically, though unseen here, amongst the Poppy crop were swathes of Cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus). In France the Cornflower is the symbol of the 11th November 1918 armistice and, as such, a popular emblem for veterans, similar to the Poppy worn in the United Kingdom and Canada.

In the past the Cornflower often grew as a weed in crop fields, hence its name (fields growing grains such as wheat, barley, rye, or oats were formerly known as “corn fields” in England). But it is now endangered in its native habitat because of agricultural intensification – and particularly overuse of herbicides – destroying its habitat… in the United Kingdom it has declined from 264 locations to just 3 sites in the last 50 years.

Typically, in this French farmed landscape, there was a Walnut tree. The word Walnut derives from Old English wealhhnutu literally “foreign nut”, wealh meaning “foreign” – although judging by the number of Walnut trees I’ve seen here, the English Walnut is far more more common in France than in the UK.

Ten-Million-to-One chance?

So why was this image chosen from the tens of thousands of others on Alamy? When I did a recent search, there were 34,793 images with “poppy” used as a keyword, 22,253 with “poppies”, 15,526 with “red poppy”, 11,813 with “poppy field”… and narrowing the results down further I found 1,947 with “poppy France”.

But I was still none the wiser because for several of the above searches, none of my poppy images appeared until well after page 10 of 120 images per page – at which point I gave up looking as one’s eyes – and those of picture researchers – would need matchsticks to prop the eyelids open when looking at blobs of red in every shot!

Finally, after doing another search with “poppy walnut tree” as the keywords… Bingo! There were only two examples amongst Alamy’s stock of 20 million images, and only mine had red poppies (the other showing yellow-orange Californian Poppies). So an oh-so-common shot turned out to be a ten-million-to-one shot being used three times this year as inside 1/4-page and 1/2-page size reproductions in UK national newspapers for 1-day licenses with and with print runs of 500,000.

UPDATE: I originally wrote that… “Astonishingly, I very nearly rejected this particular image at the initial sorting stage in Lightroom because it was amongst the most ill-defined of the shoot – even though I was using a 70-200 f/2.8 Nikkor VR (Vibration Reduction) lens, my heart was still pumping from the afternoon’s hard exercising on my fixie-bike, and some of the longer 200mm focal-length images were not what I then judged to be sharp enough for Alamy’s QC (Quality Control) standards… especially considering they were amongst my first three or four submissions to that agency!”

However, on seeing the image used here with ‘sharpening’ (click on it to see an enlarged view in a separate window), it has turned out much nicer than the original ‘zoom’ shows on the Alamy browsing page… so another lesson learned!

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