It’s springtime in Tuscany, early May. Arriving at Pisa airport the air smells different, dryer, lighter, brighter with the alluring waft of some flower scent, even amid the concrete hustle and bustle common to airports everywhere. I’m traveling light, or as light, as you can get when your camera bag is your hand luggage and you couldn’t quite leave the tripod behind. Not when the mission is a whistle-stop orchid extravaganza, to try and photograph as many different sorts of orchid as we can find, in under a week.
Heading off in a hire car, we leave Pisa behind and take to the hills, a winding, twisting, and convoluted back road towards Siena. The air is fresher and the hint of flowers strengthens until we are overwhelmed by the honeyed scent of broom, pouring in through the car windows. Every which way you look there is a picture-postcard scene, comprising the essential props of a Tuscan photo – cypress trees, warm brick farmhouse, and stone church, with gently curving green hills behind. Is it possible to take a bad photograph in Tuscany? Well yes, it is. If I give in to temptation and snap every tempting vista, I’m going to find the bright midday light turns everything to dull monochrome, flattens the colors and wastes all my film before I’ve even started on the orchids. I’ll have to note the best views and try to come back in the early morning or evening light when it all magically turns golden and lucid.
We know where we are heading – south of Siena some friends have been walking through veritable meadows filled with orchids. The challenge will be to find those places by car, along the strada bianca (dirt roads) that crisscross the countryside. The other challenge is reaching our destination when every few yards we spot a flower spike on the roadside and have to screech to a halt to identify it. Fresh from England any orchid at all is a rarity, but after an hour we are already blasé and we no longer stop for ‘just another spotted orchid’.
The next day we are up bright and early at our first spot on the lower slopes of Monte Amiata. There is an open clearing surrounded by stunted oak trees and bingo – a lavish sprinkling of bee orchids, my favorites, with their furry lip that looks just like a bumblebee. Now the advantage of early morning light and sparkling dewdrops is offset by the fact that I’ll have to lie down in the damp grass to get a good angle. Remember to bring a waterproof next time. I should use a tripod, but first I’m looking through the camera to choose the finest specimens and best setting. Some I need to trim the grass around, either with nail scissors or by gentle flattening down. A wide aperture will take care of the background but I don’t want any blurring of grass waving in the foreground. Sort out tripod, get light reading and bracket, bracket, bracket.
These are pre-digital days, I’m using tranny and color saturation has to be spot on, so to be safe I’ll do five half-stop brackets. I can’t reshoot from back home once I’ve processed it all and seen the results. This also means I have to be selective, I’ll only get six shots to a roll of film, so just the best flowers and best angles.
Moving across the clearing, as the light strengthens, I find a fly orchid, this time impersonating a bluebottle fly, not as pretty as the bee orchid but striking, then setting up for that shot I nearly tread on a fragrant orchid, delicate pink flowers. I have to be quick now before the light gets too harsh and contrasty. Three in the bag and it’s off to a bar to get a second breakfast of cappuccino and brioche. The film is safe in a cool box – hot cars at midday don’t do much for it! The middle of the day is for scouting the evening’s shoot, then lunch and a siesta. The light won’t be good again until about 5 o’clock, but we have to be in the right place by then to make the most of it. So it’s driving the back roads again between Buonconvento and Casciano di Murlo.
Over the next few days we cross off our list the green-winged orchis, pyramidal orchid, lady orchid, the monkey orchid with its long tail, a man orchid – not so easy to spot with its greeny-yellow colouring, but now we’ve got our eye in the orchid shape leaps at us from all sides. A lot of these orchids are also supposed to be common in Britain but I’ve never seen any of them there, here in Italy they’re everywhere – must be something to do with farming methods, pesticides and all the rest. Here there are a lot of small-scale farmers, subsistence farming is dying out but huge commercial agricultural companies haven’t taken over. There are also a lot of woodland and unfarmable hilly slopes. Orchids on the roadsides though, that’s just showing off!
At the end of the week it’s back to Pisa, hand in the hire car, just slightly dented from overly-steep off-road experiences, and try to persuade the security people to hand search the film bag rather than X-ray it, which could fog the film. They promise that their machine is so modern and foolproof that you can put film through safely but I’m not taking any chances and eventually they agree.
So only one more hurdle to go, the lab back home, processing and seeing what I’ve got – that heart stopping moment before opening the envelope, the huge sigh of relief when you see images on the film, then examining each one carefully and remembering the scent of the Italian countryside in springtime.