George Lepp completes a 15-year project to document the poppies of California
By Mark Edward Harris
When Adelbert von Chamisso, naturalist and member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, sailed into San Francisco Bay in 1816 aboard the Russian expeditionary ship Rurik, he was greeted with hills of golden poppies. He gave them its botanical name, Eschscholzia californica, in honor of Johann Friedrich Eschscholtz, the expedition's physician and von Chamisso's close friend.
Von Chamisso wasn't the first person to appreciate the magnificent flora. California Indians had long cherished the poppy as both a source of food and for oil extracted from the plant.
George Lepp pays tribute to California's state flower (so proclaimed in 1903) in his new book, Golden Poppies of California. Lepp's college work in the natural sciences, his service in the U.S. Marine Corps as a graphic artist, his formal training in photography at Brooks Institute of Photography and, of course, a great deal of natural talent, all combined to give him the technical skills, patience and visual aesthetic to bring such a book project to fruition.
Poppies are somewhat fickle, in a sense. Year to year, their bloom can go from spectacular to bomb. It largely depends on the rainfall in winter. To get the range of material he felt he needed, Lepp actually began this project 15 years ago and steadily worked on it, always eager for the "good" years.
Outdoor Photographer: Why poppies as a subject? George Lepp: I've always enjoyed looking at poppies. These huge fields of California poppies in the Antelope Valley area near Lancaster are spectacular—that's what started the project. I went to help retrieve an assistant's car, which had broken down near Antelope Valley. He had been taking pictures in the area, and mentioned the Poppy Reserve. We decided that since we had to travel all the way from where I live on the coast near Morro Bay, we should see what the flowers looked like in the area. From that moment on, I began to follow the poppy bloom.
Outdoor Photographer: What are the challenges of photographing poppies, and how do you deal with them? Lepp: The first challenge is having a good bloom—is this a good year for the flower? The second challenge is finding the time to get there and waiting around long enough for the wind not to blow. Also, the poppies only open when the sun shines, and even then, not until nine or ten in the morning. One of the names of the poppy is the dormidera, which is Spanish for "the sleepy one," because the flower doesn't open until later in the morning and closes as soon as it starts getting dark. You don't get the best light because the flowers don't open until there's bright light. And, if the wind's blowing or it's overcast, the poppies close up. I've spent days waiting for them to do something and sometimes nothing happens. It's a waiting game—you're at the mercy of the elements. Sometimes, I'd shoot anyway, even though it was rainy and overcast, because the light was interesting.
Outdoor Photographer: When is the best time of year to enjoy and photograph California poppies? Lepp: The main season for poppies is late March through mid-May. That's your main large display. The beginning of April tends to be the best time. There have been years where there hasn't been a single poppy out there because it hasn't rained or due to other conditions. As far as individual poppies, I have poppies in my yard every month of the year.
Outdoor Photographer: Where else in the world do you find poppies? Lepp: You'll find this particular genus of poppies in Oregon, then it comes down through California and sort of slides over into Arizona. The main species, Eschscholzia californica, is situated mostly in California itself. There are other poppy species and, of course, poppies that are used in narcotics; those are found in Asia and other places.
Outdoor Photographer: You mentioned that the light can be difficult at times when the flowers are open. Do you use reflectors or other light-altering techniques? Lepp: In general, I stay with the light that's there. Very little has been done other than in ambient light, except for the close-up macros, which I do using the Canon Macro flash system. Early on, I used my own macro bracket system that had multiple flashes. They all do the same thing; they give you a multiple light source that works in conjunction with high magnification. One strobe is close to the lens, one is off to the side. It's a portrait type of lighting, where you have a key light that's your main light source, such as the sun, and then a fill, which is the equivalent to the open sky.
Outdoor Photographer: Since the book has taken so many years to complete, you've gone through a number of technical changes in photography. Have you been able to present the images with a seamless transition from film to digital? Lepp: The way in which I was able to give the book a cohesive look is that everything I do today is done through my computer; everything comes through Photoshop. That doesn't mean that I manipulate the images; I optimize them. It doesn't make any difference what film I shot or whether I've shot it with a Canon EOS 10D or 1Ds; in the end, I've optimized the images. If I've done a good job, they all look very similar. After you've optimized the image, it goes back to the subject itself being the important factor.
Outdoor Photographer: What's been the evolution of your capture medium? Lepp: It was 35mm transparency film at first, then on to digital in the past few years. However, even the transparencies changed as I went. I started with Kodachrome 64, then went to E100SW and finally to E100VS just before going completely digital.
Outdoor Photographer: Many pros might have considered large or medium format for such a project. Why did you choose to do this in 35mm? Lepp: In a sense, I'm wedded to 35mm and the digital formats based on 35mm cameras because of the versatility. I do a lot of things with long telephoto lenses up to 400mm to isolate the flowers. A 300mm lens wide open will give you a wonderful isolation of a subject. I also use very wide-angle lenses, and I use macro techniques. Medium and large format don't quite lend themselves to the way that I shoot. For example, over the years, I've used a 75-300mm zoom, then a 180mm macro and now even a 100-400mm zoom to isolate the subject. This would be challenging to do in any other format.
Outdoor Photographer: What's your digital camera setup? Lepp: The Canon EOS-1Ds with all the same lenses I've been using with the rest of my 35mm gear. I shoot everything in RAW with a JPEG. [Editor's Note: The Canon 1Ds does this for you.] I edit with a JPEG and narrow it down to the RAWs. That's changing, though. With Photoshop CS, the browser is so much better that I'll shoot less JPEGs now. I end up with a 33-megabyte, 16-bit file.
The great advantage of digital is that we can see what we're doing while we're still at our photo location instead of having to wait for film to be processed and then have the conditions change. I've been out in the field photographing this last year with my laptop in my van. After I shoot, I go back in, look at everything I've done and see if I want to change anything in how I'm shooting. Did I capture what I came here to do? If I haven't, I can wait for the weather to change. If I have, I can go back home.
For me, it's a hundred and some miles to where the main batch of poppies is located, but you go out there when you think the conditions for the poppies will be best and wait for the weather to do what it's going to do. I've spent days sitting there and getting no pictures. I work on my laptop on other projects, write columns or go into Lancaster to watch a movie. Because of the new technology, I can log on to the Internet through my cell phone and look at weather reports for the area. I can check to see if the storms or the winds are going to get worse or better. I make my decisions based upon that.
Outdoor Photographer: Patience is more than just a virtue; it's a necessity on this kind of project. Lepp: The poppies aren't like any other flower. How do you do a book on just one flower? There's a huge amount of variance in size and color, depending upon where they're located. And there are some subspecies—some yellow, some gold, some deep orange. We've come across white ones that are mutations. In Arizona, a gentleman came up with a pure red poppy through cross-pollinating.
Outdoor Photographer: What's your computer setup? Lepp: I have a Dell. All the transparency images in the book have been scanned using the Nikon 4000 and Nikon 8000 scanners. All of the pre-production has come through my workflow here. Everything goes through Adobe Photoshop.
Outdoor Photographer: Any suggestions to photographers who are interested in producing their own personal projects? Lepp: Choose a subject that you have an affinity for and let it develop in front of you, giving it enough time to mature. It's amazing the places that this approach will take you. I started my photos on this project with a single flower image and went from there. George Lepp's book, Golden Poppies of California, is available by visiting www.goldenpoppies.com or by calling Lepp & Associates at (805) 528-7385. For information on the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, call (661) 724-1180 or visit http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=627