Last year to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, the artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper collaborated on an installation at the Tower of London called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red.
To say that it captured the public’s imagination would be a gross understatement; five million visitors came to see it in person, there was a campaign to extend its display for longer, and the sale of the individual ceramic poppies when it was dismantled was heavily over-subscribed.
Being one of many events that marked the 100 years it could be said that all that interest was stirred by a sense of the nation seeking to pay its respects to the hundreds of thousands of war dead, and that it certainly true, but I think there was something else at work here. The power of the poppy itself.
The flower’s use as a symbol of remembrance stems back to John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields, though he makes no use of it as metaphor, merely observing the existence of the poppy in the landscape churned and shattered by warfare. With a bullet-hole of blackness at its heart, surrounded by blood-red petals it could have been put to greater use.
It may be that this similarity prompted others to take up its use of course; though interestingly in France it has not been adopted in the same way. Their remembrance flower is cornflower blue.
But back to McCrae. In writing his poem I feel he would have found it hard to ignore the scarlet of the poppy, it has the ability to jump out of any landscape so vivid is its hue. It demands your attention.
Artists and photographers have long been drawn to the subject, and in my experience I recall incurring the wrath of a farmer while trying to photograph my youngest daughter in a poppy field (she was mortified), and when the fields around Penshaw Monument were stained red a few years back finding that wherever you went to try to find the perfect composition there was someone else setting up their tripod.
For the last couple of weeks a small patch of the wildflowers has been screaming for attention as I head south from my Durham home (a regular occurrence) and yesterday I finally took a detour whilst out cycling to see if there was a shot to be had. In seeking to answer that question I had to fight through hawthorn bushes planted around the field’s perimeter and so traded my blood for theirs.
And here’s the difficulty. That crimson that so demands attention seems to overwhelm both sensor and computer screen. In processing the images you risk dullness or over-saturation. There seems to be no happy medium so I found myself resorting to being more creative with the colours and light. The call was worth answering all the same.