Jim Richardson: Master Of Meaningful Stories

Since 1984, Jim Richardson has been photographing for National Geographic, traveling the world and telling stories with his camera, largely based on the issues most important to him. He has studied the Celtic realm, light pollution, life in small-town America and many more subjects to which he believes he can bring attention in a meaningful way. The Kansas-based photographer has devoted much of his time and energy to issues of agriculture and the food supply, first and foremost, because it’s an underreported subject he believes needs to be addressed.

“Some of it is that I have that background,” says Richardson, “and I speak the language and I understand why it’s important. And I’ve kind of felt incumbent to do that, because there weren’t a lot of other people doing it. There’s a story to be told and there just aren’t a lot of other people who are panting with bated breath to go and take pictures of earthworms, you know? Everybody wants to go to Paris and do street cafés, or go to Cuba and do street photography. But go to Cuba, Kansas? Yeah, right. There’s a real limit of people who want to talk about the tough work of photographing ‘why seed banks are important.’ So it’s gratifying to do that work, because at least I can have a voice. There are so many stories that have no lack of coverage. I mean, you know, when it comes to big dramatic fuzzy mammals, there’s not a dearth of people who will go to Africa and photograph more lions. There’s probably not many of us who will make it our life’s work to photograph soil fungi and the root structure in prairie grasses. I see it as an opportunity, in that I’ve always, in my career, sort of veered away from the trends. I’ve just always felt that it didn’t serve me well to follow the crowd.”

After 31 years of globetrotting, Richardson isn’t thinking about retirement so much as he’s considering his photographic legacy.

“I’ve said to people recently,” Richardson quips, “you know, if I was going to retire, I think it would be nice to have a gallery on Main Street in a small town and do a little work for National Geographic now and then. Then I kind of go, well, I guess that’s pretty much where I’m at. But I don’t exactly see why I should go do something other than what I’ve been working toward my whole life.”

STONES OF STERNNESS. Richardson has long been drawn to the Stones of Stenness, on the Orkney Islands of Scotland. The massive freestanding stones are thought to be the oldest henge in the British Isles, and their power, beauty and historical significance are revealed in his images.

“If a tree falls in the forest and nobody sees it…” he continues. “We can argue all we want about what’s the best archival storage medium and what will make prints last longest, but usually pictures die not so much when they deteriorate sitting in a box. It’s when you’re gone, when you die, and somebody is presented with this pile of stuff, and they simply say, ‘What in the hell are we going to do with all of this?’ And it lands in the dumpster.”

Richardson is in the fortunate position of not only having his work published in magazines like National Geographic and Traveler, but he also runs his own gallery. Printing, of course, is becoming rarer in the digital age, and Richardson sees it both as a hedge against irrelevance and a different path to connection with an audience.

THE HEBRIDES, SCOTLAND. “I approached that landscape looking for the drama of the geology and the story the geology told, and how that plays out. That ended up being several pictures, including Fingal’s Cave. The interior—that thing has been photographed a lot and everybody has been painting it way back to Turner in the Victorian era.I ended up doing a picture there that has garnered some attention. That makes me feel good when I can go to a place that has been worked hard and do something out of it.”

“Digital storage is going to be a continuing problem,” he says. “At some point, I want to get enough pictures printed that if in 100 years the JPEG format is gone, you can still see them. And different pictures come to the fore on the wall than in other uses. You really have to switch gears to understand what will endure in someone’s heart and mind as a print, as opposed to what makes an effective picture for a story in National Geographic. They’re often very, very different. There are certain pictures in our gallery that people get very attached to. There’s a picture of just light from a stained glass window falling on a cathedral floor in Locronan, Brittany. People are very attached to that. It was a marginal picture for the story in a magazine, because it didn’t really describe very much. But the attachment people feel for it is very emotional.”

Tending to one’s legacy, it turns out, isn’t unlike tending to one’s career. Eight years ago, when last we spoke, Richardson’s approach was wholly different: Shoot projects and watch as National Geographic published and promoted the work. But these days, he says, the photographer must do more and take an active role in getting the work seen.

FOOD SUPPLY AND AGRICULTURE. “This story will be central and in the news for at least the next three or four decades. And, as world population continues to grow, all those things keep happening. I encourage young photographers, take a look at the stories that have long-term legs that will continue to have importance over time and are under-covered.”

“If you would look at what I was doing in 2008,” he says, “and what I’m doing now, there are significant differences in time and emphasis, and trying to develop new ways of working and using the pictures. It may look like the same guy eight years later, but, in fact, there’s a whole lot of change. I’ve been taught by experience and others that unless you attend to the business of getting your pictures seen, probably no one else is going to do it for you. So you end up with a very large body of work that takes additional work to make relevant. And some of that can be done through social media, some of it simply has to be published in relevant publications, some of it has to be personal and acquired by people in the form of a print. All of it adds up. I don’t think there’s one way of doing it, frankly. It’s cumulative, in a way that these pictures take on a life in the culture. You can think of permanence in terms of how long is an inkjet print going to last, and you can think of permanence in the form of, ‘is anyone going to care about this picture after I’m gone? Will this picture matter?’ I think it’s really important that you put the effort into both things. You’re going to have to worry about, you know, how you’re going to store those photographs so they don’t rot away. But you also have to pay attention to ‘does anyone care?’

ESTELA CÓNDOR. “When we started to photograph the farmers for the ‘Feeding 9 Billion’ story, Dennis Dimick, my picture editor, really directed me toward doing straight-on portraits—something I don’t normally do—bringing them face to face with readers, saying here are the people who bring us our food. You have certain moments in your photographic life when you loo
k through the camera and think, ‘I’m in front of something extraordinary.’ Her face and her expression, surrounded by the swirling clouds and the Andes in the background—she had this striking face in which each side had a bit of a different cast to it. One side was a bit optimistic, and the other had a bit of a look of despair to it. She’s holding potatoes in her lap, and when those things happen, you just feel, ‘Get it right! When are you going to be here again? When will the little gift of this moment pass your way again?’ I feel a great responsibility when those things happen. These folks are speaking to the world, but only if I do my job well.”

“We used to worry about pictures being overexposed,” Richardson continues, “that they would lose value if they got seen too much. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. They simply gain value, they gain stature and they gain exposure, and there’s no downside to having pictures seen. So the more avenues to get the pictures seen, the better. Eight years ago, the magazine assignment was the be-all and end-all. It was the entire vehicle, and that work’s effect was going to be determined by the exposure in the magazine. And that’s not the case anymore. It’s one of the main vehicles by which the pictures work and the photographer is known, but it’s only one. The photographer used to produce photographs and now photographers have to produce eyeballs. The photographer no longer can simply be the person who takes the picture and gives it to somebody else to use. I think the essential thing that a photographer does is define the issue, define the subject matter that’s important, and attend to the whole package—of not just the pictures, but the editorial content, their distribution and their impact on society—pretty much be the publisher and the missionary, and the advocate, frankly.

END OF NIGHT—LIGHT POLLUTION SERIES. “I’ve also, in the last few years, done a story on the end of night,” notes Richardson. “It was about light pollution. That was another one that I could do that I felt good about, because we got them a fair amount of attention by getting it into National Geographic. If you can do that, you can bring some attention to a story.”

“Photographers have become not just the persons supplying the pictures,” he notes, “but also supplying the ideas and advocating for those ideas. Essentially, that means that the definition of photographer has changed. Because you expect the photographer not just to be the knob turner who knows how to take the successful image, but also to be the vessel for the issue. My mind-set is still the picture, you know, and all of which is necessary, too. I just think that the range of what photographers do and what photographers are has broadened considerably.

“You see National Geographic,” says Richardson, “out of necessity and out of opportunity, expanding how they tell stories. So not only is somebody like me shooting for the magazine, but also appearing on the digital website, in their PROOF blog, on their Instagram feed, which now has, what, 29 million followers? Their digital formats will simply keep expanding. There will come a time, if it isn’t already here, in which the print delivery of the stories is eclipsed by the digital delivery of the stories, one way or another. By way of example, say I do a story for the magazine. Because of the vagaries of publishing, it can be two years before somebody sees any of my pictures again in the magazine. On Instagram, they can see me every day. And already I’m seeing people say, ‘You know, my goal is to get to be a good enough photographer that I can be on the National Geographic Instagram feed.’ You see that down the comments. You see people changing what they think it means to be a National Geographic photographer.” 

See more of Jim Richardson’s photography at jimrichardsonphotography.com.

As Times Change, Cameras Change

My equipment lineup has been evolving as the media world changes. For years, I was adamant about using only one model of camera from one manufacturer so that it became absolutely second nature. I hated it when a new model moved a button or changed the way some function worked. Now it seems I’m becoming more ecumenical in my equipment choices, as I have a wider range of media needs.

First, I still love my Nikons. When it comes to jobs where full resolution, full quality is the name of the game, that’s what I reach for. Mainly, that would be my D800 and D800E and a raft of lenses—mostly, Nikkors like the incomparable 14-24mm ƒ/2.8. But I also have a couple of the Sigma Art series lenses now, the 50mm ƒ/1.4 and the 35mm ƒ/1.4 for some of the portrait work I’ve been doing on stories like “Feeding the Planet” for National Geographic. Simply put, they’re the best ƒ/1.4 lenses I’ve ever used—matched by my 24mm ƒ/1.4 Nikkor, by the way. These combinations of bodies and lenses produce pretty stunning image files. I print 40”x60” files regularly out of my Epson 9900, and the look and feel of the resulting prints are amazing. It’s not just the resolution, it’s the tonality and integrity of the image, too.

But now I’m spending a lot of time attending to social media, building my Instagram following, for example, and for that, it’s my iPhone 6 Plus. This bit of kit is crucial for me in this day and age. I’ve done several trips where I’ve taken only the iPhone. The combination of a really respectable camera, a multitude of interesting apps, editing on the flow in the field and the data connection to get the image uploaded immediately are crucial to me today.

Finally, I’ve also just picked up a kit of the Olympus OMD cameras. For recent fieldwork, I wanted something that was much smaller and lighter, but that was still capable of first-rate imaging and adept at producing video. I didn’t just want a mirrorless camera that was a little smaller than my Nikons. I wanted something that would expand what I could produce. The Olympus filled my needs. The lenses are first-rate. Rarely have I seen lenses that can deliver sharp images wide open across the full frame the way these do. What I hadn’t expected was how incredibly well the image stabilization works on the Olympus. Nothing I’ve seen matches it. And you can’t really believe it until you hold it in your hands or shoot some video with it while walking around. These cameras—my go-to body is the OM-D E-M5 Mark II—also have some unique tricks that let me get images I’d miss otherwise. Being able to pull out the articulated screen and touch the screen where I want it to focus and fire—which it can do virtually instantly—got me some shots in Scotland last month.

Right now, for the work I’m doing at present, I’m pretty happy with this lineup. I’m surprised how my priorities have been shaped recently by changing demands to produce pictures for different publishing platforms. That’s not going to go away, so I expect that my equipment lineup will continue to evolve. —Jim Richardson

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