Photographer Makes Seed Packages, Catalogs Bloom

The commercial photographer was walking through a red poppy field that would have done any home gardener proud, but he might as well have been negotiating a mine field.

Stephen Dibblee, a 38-year-old Ventura native who specializes in seed packages, side-stepped a hot pink blossom. "An off-type," he explained.

He skirted a patch littered with the evidence of wind damage and watched for the lacy pattern that spells an infestation by the dreaded Diabrotica beetle.

"Oh, here's a pretty one," he said, fingering what seemed to be a perfect blossom. "Except you've got some little holes . . . "

And so it went until Dibblee, a tall, willowy man with a graying beard, spotted the flawless bunch of flowers that may or may not appear on the next package of Scarlet Bubble Icelandic Poppies produced by the W. Atlee Burpee Co.

Dibblee shoots nearly half of the hundreds of seed package covers produced annually by Burpee. He is one of only two photographers used by the company and the only one on the West Coast. His photographs of flowers, ground covering, fruits and vegetables have also appeared in a wide range of farm publications, such as Seed World, Grower Talks and The California-Arizona Farm Press, as well as such mainstream magazines as Good Housekeeping, Harrowsmith and Sunset.

Considering his workload and the whims of nature, Dibble's grateful, he said, that he has considerable patience.

"Basically, you're at the mercy of nature," he said.

The pictures of the poppies, for instance, took three passes through the field. One day, the flowers were "waving just a little too much" in the wind at Burpee's test plot off Briggs Road in Santa Paula; another day, it drizzled. The wind promised to whoop on the third, then it died down only to pick up again.

On other occasions, the pace is all too quick.

During July, for instance, 40 varieties of flowers and produce will ripen in a single week and more if a heat wave follows a cold snap.

During those periods Dibblee, who also shoots package covers and catalog pictures for the Peto Seed Co. in Saticoy, rushes from one field to another, trying to capture tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squash and peppers before they lose their luster.

"If the tomatoes have to be shot, they have to be shot," said Ursula Rohmann-Gould, Peto's advertising manager. "It's a matter of hours, not days."

In the summer, it's not unusual for Dibblee to leave home at 5 a.m.--to beat the crews who harvest the crops for seed--and not return home until after 9 p.m., said Mariane Dibblee, his wife.

The dedication has paid off. Peto Seed Co., which sells seeds to farmers, has tried other photographers but has been disappointed, Rohmann-Gould said.

"The broccoli looked purple," she said. Now she uses Dibble exclusively.

"He's fantastic," concurred Barbara Wolverton, Burpee's photography supervisor.

Not bad for someone who says he received a "D" in photography in high school and took only one course on the subject in college.

Dibblee traces his success to his father, Walt, who ran a commercial photography studio in Ventura for 35 years before retiring in 1982. Ralph Nadar, meanwhile, gets credit for instilling in Dibblee the persistence needed to track down just the right subject. As a photographer for the Oxnard Press-Courier in the early 1970s, Dibblee covered a press conference held by the consumer rights advocate.

Nadar chastised him for shooting "practically every other move he made."

"I was the example of the waste in our society," Dibble said. "Not wasting film has been in the back of my mind ever since."

Dibble joined his father's business in 1976 after leaving the newspaper and a discouraging round of lumbering jobs in the Pacific Northwest.

He's specialized in agricultural photography for 10 years, but his routine makes growing plants from seeds seem simple.

Take picking the proper specimen. A cucumber has to have the correct length-to-width ratio for its variety.

A pear tomato can't look round, and the stem of a special "jointed" variety has to be intact so it looks as easy to pick as it is.

If the soil beneath a plant is going to be visible, Dibblee rakes it, breaks up the dirt clots and generally "fluffs it up."

If the vegetable is at all dirty, it gets a bath.

Dibblee might spray it with water, but not very much. He said he doesn't want to remind farmers of "the fungus infestations that they fight every day."

"Everything," he said, "has to be prepared to look as natural as possible."

In the case of the poppies, that meant cutting a bud looming behind the bunch of three that made up the picture.

"It made it look like the blossom on the left had two stems," he said.

He lowered his camera and tripod within a foot of the ground to get "a shot with the sky. No dirt," he emphasized, resting his elbow in the earth as he crouched before the viewfinder.

"Ohhh," he groaned when a bee landed on a stamen. "No bees! Not for a seed package!"

Dibblee shot 14 shots with the three blossoms rustling slightly in a breeze like Fortuny petticoats, and called it a wrap--at least for the day.

"It might seem like a waste, but with this flower I'll probably make another attempt."

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