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Niall Benvie - Nature Against a White Background, France II

October 28th, 2009 Posted in Southern Europe, Uncategorized

No Translations

Just after breakfast, Robert (by this time I had been encouraged to use “Bob” and “tu”) showed me a site for henbane, a fantastically poisonous member of the nightshade family that grows on a roadside above Guillestre. Although I had seen the plant once before in Scotland, these “bushes” were far more impressive. My dictionary describes henbane as “coarse”; I think “sinister” is closer to the mark: its hairy leaves are large and pointed but soft enough to entice the unwary to stroke or even break one off.

The veins of the pus-yellow flowers blend suddenly in their inscrutable purple throats. The plant has the smell of something bad having happened. This is not a subject for a white background and instead I used a troubled sky a few mornings later as the backdrop, lighting the plant with a single large diffused flash. I liked the juxtaposition between gentle light and “coarse” subject.

On arriving at the fort on the hill top, we ate the young flowers of Acacia which, at the right stage, taste just like freshly-vined peas. There I noticed some fast-flying Ascalaphids, insects that look like a cross between a dragonfly and butterfly. They looked very tempting, but were going to be a challenge – for later – to photograph.

I returned in the afternoon to the Foret du Margon with photographer, Joël Lejuene, to look at another site for lady’s slipper. While I had felt a little pretentious up until then speaking French to French people (I am British, after all, and not supposed to do that sort of thing) now there was no choice as Joël spoke even less English than I spoke French. My limited vocabulary was tested to the limit as I tried to explain the finer points of my field studio technique, “It is imperative to make that the white background is totally white but not too much. With a subject who is white, the background must to be more far than with a subject that is more black.” Joël is clearly highly intelligent as he made sense of this columbine French and did as I suggested, keeping the background close in behind darker, more opaque subjects and moving it further away from paler, more translucent ones. We concluded our visit to the forest with a male longhorn beetle, Stenocorus cursor, which, though not as colourful as the female of this species, was at least quite placid on the curved scoop set.

Everything here is VERY. The days are very hot and early mornings very cold. The crickets and nightingales are very noisy and the rivers of glacial meltwater very fast and turbulent. The wind is very strong and the mountains very severe. Nature fills your senses to bursting point – and it is both exhilarating and exhausting.

When I turned up at the riverside chalets to meet Joël, Bob produced a cockchafer for me to photograph in the scoop set. I had seen quite a few of these big beetles in the car park of my hotel where, attracted by the blooming acacia and lights, they had dashed themselves to death in their nocturnal blunderings. But this was one very much alive and, fed up of wandering about on the white set, remembered it could fly. With Joël wrangling the beast, I had a few opportunities to photograph its wings before we let it fly free into the dazzling canopy to meet other cockchafers.


As we set out to drive up to St Véran, I had in mind that we would enter a rocky realm of dripping crags and saxifrages, with rude stone dwellings clustered together for comfort under a looming sky. As my feeble Fiat panted up the inclines we came to an alpine hay meadow where I photographed the elegant St Bruno’s lily. “Formidable, very elegant,” I murmured, my lexicon of appreciation soon exhausted. Such was the diversity of flowers along the edge of this field (venturing deeper into it wasn’t on as it was a hay crop) that I could have worked it all day. Nevertheless, the high alpines I anticipated around St Véran beckoned.

Well, I was in for a surprise. Not only did Cembra pines still grow tall and straight at 2,011 metres (if we had a natural tree line in eastern Scotland it would be about 700 metres at best) but there were no saxifrages and no mean hovels. On the contrary, St Véran, set on the slopes of the Montagne de Beauregard (there’s a clue) is one of the 141 Plus Beaux Villages in France, comprised of largely wooden barn-like houses each with an improbably sublime view of the high Alps. The light was almost unbearably bright: I could feel my pale Celtic skin age under its glare so, rather like some of my invertebrate subjects, I found myself drawn to the cool shadows.

Today I met Joël at 0515 and we headed south on the picturesque, if convoluted, D900 to Dignes les Baines, in the heart of France’s fossil country. He had arranged the previous day with the Director for us to access the Butterfly Gardens before they officially opened in the hope that we may surprise some moths and butterflies with le fond blanc before they stirred for the day. A sunny terraced hillside planted with food and nectar plants attracts over one hundred species of moths and butterflies, all free flying. Within minutes of arrival, Joël had found a finely marked oak hawkmoth at roost that would allow me to set up the field studio around it without difficulty. Disappointingly, this was the only species willing to cooperate as the slope quickly warmed. Consolation came in the form of several vigorous spikes of lizard orchid – a lime-loving rarity in the UK - whose leaves senesce even before all the flowers have opened out. The flowers themselves have massively elongated spiralling lips, giving larger specimens the appearance of streamer-bedecked maypoles.
By 1300 we had done all we could. “I have a big woman,” I declared, “Will we eat?”

Niall Benvie / Wild Wonders of Europe

Please note that blogs reflect our photographers' opinions and not necessarily those of the directors of Wild Wonders of Europe.

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