The first time landscape photographer Rob Badger saw the wildflowers bloom in the Mojave Desert, he drove directly to a grocery store pay phone and put in a collect call to his partner, Nita Winter. She accepted the call in Marin City, and when his verbal description proved insufficient, he jumped in his car, drove six hours home to pick her up and then six hours back to the desert to prove it to her.
It was 1992, the first rainy season after seven years of drought, and “there was no way in hell that she was going to miss this,” recalls Badger. “There was this contrast of purple and white mixed in with orange. I’d never seen anything like it.”
Neither had Winter, who up to that moment had photographed people exclusively. But this sight got her to switch to flowers, and they started a joint project now in its 27th year called “The Winter Badger Collection.” Seventy-three of the best images from the collection will form “Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change,” which opens Tuesday, April 2, at the Bay Model Visitor Center in Sausalito.
After every wet winter, Badger and Winter drop their other projects and spend up to eight weeks camping with their tents and tripods. Each shot can require a 5-mile hike carrying 65 pounds of equipment, and 90 minutes of set-up. This labor-intensive process has allowed them to capture the red lilies with yellow-checks at the Oregon border, and the white desert lilies at the Mexican border.
They’ve also shot the bloom all over the Bay Area, from yellow globe lilies at Mount Diablo to the fuchsia wild onions that grow at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. (Their exhibit is sponsored by the Marin Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, so their home county is well represented.)
At the Bay Model, the framed images, some as large as posters, hang in the lobby gallery at the entrance to the warehouse-size scale model of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The bay model and the building belong to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It fits the outlook of Winter and Badger, who shoot only on land owned by the government — county, state or federal.
“Those are the only places where a lot of these flowers are found because they are protected ecosystems safe from development,” says Badger.
While Badger has seen private wildflower habitat bulldozed for development, he has also seen fields of wildflowers trampled by tourists in need of selfies, and he believes this year may be the worst yet. The winter and spring rains have caused a superbloom of California poppies at Lake Elsinore (Riverside County) that has created headaches for residents and environmentalists. Visitors are stuck in traffic jams and are now being directed to park at a nearby mall to wait up to an hour to take a $10 tour bus up to the hillsides just to take photos of the bloom.
Rob Badger photographs calypso orchids on Mount Tamalpais in Marin County.Photo: © Nita Winter, 2011
Winter and Badger say they never harm so much as a petal on the wildflowers they photograph, even when shooting what they call “floral portraits.” For these they set up a portable photo studio with a white or black backdrop and delicately wrap the flower in chiffon fabric.
Checkerbloom in Ring Mountain Open Space Preserve in Marin County. Photo: © Rob Badger Photography , 2013
“No one else does that because they are not crazy enough, but we are,” says Winter.
Winter calls it “magical that there are so many different colors and shapes and sizes of flowers,” but admits “it’s hard to describe sometimes.” That’s why 16 nature writers and biologists were tapped to supply the essays for “Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change,” a coffee-table companion set for publication this fall.
“The book is not just about documenting the beauty with pictures of pretty flowers,” says Badger.
Winter chimes in: “It is meant to educate and inspire action to reduce the effects of climate change, and preserve land and species.”
“Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change”: Photography by Rob Badger and Nita Winter. 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, April 2-6. Opening reception 1-3 p.m. April 6. On view through June 1. Free. Bay Model Visitor Center, 2100 Bridgeway, Sausalito. 415-332-3871. winterbadger.com
Published by: San Francisco Chronicle
"Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change" traveling exhibit which just opened at the Los Altos History Museum. Check on the museums restricted hours and make a reservation before visiting the exhibit. https://www.losaltoshistory.org/exhibit/beauty-and-the-beast/
Our virtual talk: 27 Year Wildflower Journey, hosted by the museum, is scheduled for 5 PM, March 18th, 2020. It is one of three related talks, including What is Citizen Science? by one of our authors, Mary Ellen Hannibal, at 5 pm on Earth Day, April 22nd.