The Origin of a Viral Photo of Desert Wildflowers "God Spilled the Paint" by Frank Kee

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
Tremblor3.05L.jpg

I saw the above image shared on Facebook with the description: 'Death Valley is coming to life as a direct result of the rains caused by El Niño. Called a "superbloom".'

The problem is it's not Death Valley, and it's not this year. It's actually from 11 years ago, and was taken in the Tremblor Range in California (170 miles from Death Valley) in march 2005 by Frank Kee.

Even back in 2008 the image had been widely and misleadingly shared on the internet, as the photographer himself describes:
https://web.archive.org/web/20080613124558/http://www.keesphotos.com/gallery/1680669_gmPVN
Now this is a pretty harmless example of bunk (except for Mr Kee not getting due credit). But it's a great illustration of why we should not trust the labeling of images on the internet. I had immediate suspicions on seeing the image, so did a quick image search, and one of the first things that came up was a story about desert blooms in Chile:

20160229-104824-24pch.jpg

There were even multiple instances of this image being used to illustrate the story of the bloom in the Atacama desert, so it seemed like case closed at that point.
http://www.telesurtv.net/english/mu...m-in-Chiles-Atacama-Desert-20151102-0017.html
20160229-105340-q5mc8.jpg

I was about to point out (on Facebook) where the image had come from, but when I clicked on the Twitter link the post was missing. So I searched a little further, and found hundreds more usages of the image, many predating this tweet and the 2015 story about Atacama.

It then became obvious that this was a very old image (in internet terms), and one that had been shared so many times its origin might be hard to find. Reverse image searches just turned up hundreds more examples, and the oldest one on Tineye.com was only 2008.

So instead of searching by image, I searched with a few search terms to see what came up "Desert Bloom", "Death valley flowers bloom", etc. Finally got a result with "Desert wildflowers"
20160229-105942-z6wfm.jpg
The first image result led to a 2009 forum post:
http://www.desertusa.com/mb3/viewtopic.php?t=1398
The first link changes with time, but a bit of digging in Archive.org (looking at the page around March 2005), and we find the original:
https://web.archive.org/web/20050415005411/http://www.desertusa.com/wildflo/ca.html
20160229-110729-nq7jd.jpg

So the lesson here in tracking down a suspicious image is not to stop when you find what looks like the real source. Apply the same skepticism you did to the original source, and check to see if that claim actually holds up. A quick and necessary test is to see if the image existed at an earlier date. In this case the story about the desert blooms in Chile looked authoritative, even crediting a photographer (not Mr Kee though). However the story was from 2015, and there were hundreds of usages of the photo from earlier years.

And don't just rely on image searches. Keyword search can return results that are more relevant. Sometimes you've just got to keep digging until something crops up.

The GPS checks out too.
20160229-112353-oz3e8.jpg
 
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Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
This particular image is so old it was briefly debunked ten years ago, in 2006, when there were already a variety of different stories about it.
https://www.truthorfiction.com/wildflowers/
There was actually a link to TruthorFiction in the desertusa.com forum post, but unfortunately they had changed their URL format so the link was broken.

It was also covered on Snopes:
http://www.snopes.com/photos/natural/flowers.asp
The "Status: True" is a bit unfortunate though, as one might be tempted to quickly assume that the new Facebook claim checks out. They also repeat the location as "East of Tehachapi", which is flat wrong, as it's 70 miles West of Tehachapi - almost none of the description in the example is correct, so a bit of a poor job by Snopes there.
 
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Gridlock

Active Member
I took a whirl through Google to see if I could trace it back using some of their advanced tools, but no cigar.

Interestingly though this image appears on the first page of results for [scottish countryside] and [iranian landscape] and presumably a multitude of others. It's really done the rounds.
 

Trailspotter

Senior Member
A non-natural purple sky in the OP image hints on its colours being modified or enhanced. Nevertheless, these and other images found by searching flickr for 'mojave desert wildflowers' confirm that the desert in April can be very colourful indeed:
 

M Bornong

Senior Member
A non-natural purple sky in the OP image hints on its colours being modified or enhanced. Nevertheless, these and other images found by searching flickr for 'mojave desert wildflowers' confirm that the desert in April can be very colourful indeed:
It is quite the sight to see. The first 2, I took on April 20, 2014 near Lancaster CA, along Hwy. 138, near the California Poppy Reserve. The second 2, March 15, 2013 along Hwy 223 near Arvin CA. It doesn't happen every year, the timing of the rain and warming of Spring have to be just right. The bloom has been decent this year, possibly the rain predicted this weekend will push it over the top.

DSCF0078.JPG DSCF0086.JPG DSCF8695.jpg DSCF8708.jpg

"Not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of the poppies." John Steinbeck
 
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M Bornong

Senior Member
So pretty. Now I'm tempted to go on a road trip this weekend - just need to figure out where:
http://www.wondermondo.com/Best/NA/CalifPoppies.htm
This site keeps up pretty well.

If you want to chase the valley in the OP, this is today's report.
 

M Bornong

Senior Member

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Cony

New Member
I was testing Google Image to identify photos and it suggested that the famous 2005 Frank Kee picture from Carrizo Plains, was in China :p
 
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