Interview with National Geographic Photographer Jim Richardson

This past Spring, fotofoto gallery photographer Scott Farrell had a unique opportunity to correspond with photographer Jim Richardson.

For those of you who are not familiar with Jim’s work, the following is from his web site…

“Jim Richardson is a photographer for National Geographic Magazine and a contributing editor for its sister publication,TRAVELER Magazine.  Richardson has photographed more than 25 stories for National Geographic. 

Richardson’s work takes him around the world, from the tops of volcanic peaks to below the surface of swamps and wetlands.  ABC News Nightline produced a story about the long process of assembling a National Geographic coverage by following Richardson in the field and at National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C. 

In addition to his color photography, Richardson has built a distinguished body of black-and-white documentary work about rural Kansas life.  His audiovisual presentation, “Reflections From a Wide Spot in the Road,” has toured internationally.  A 22-page story about his 30 years of photographing life in the north central Kansas town of Cuba, population 230, was published in National Geographic and featured twice by CBS News Sunday Morning, most recently in May 2004.   His 1979 study of adolescence, “High School USA,” is now considered a photo essay classic and is used in college classrooms.

Richardson speaks nationally and internationally.  He lives in Lindsborg, Kansas, where his work is featured at his gallery, Small World, on Lindsborg’s Main Street.”

After Jim was kind enough to field some technical questions, Scott asked if he wouldn’t mind answering a few general questions for inclusion on fotofoto gallery’s blog.  He graciously agreed and here is how the “conversation” went…


SF: What was it that drew you to photography, as opposed to “how did you get your start”?

JR: Well, as a sort of a loner kid out on a farm I had many hobbies and I was fascinated by all sorts of “magical” technology, like telescopes and microscopes. So I think it was both the technology of cameras, and then the miraculous things that happened in the darkroom, that really got me going. But then, it also turned on my ability to make images that somehow transformed the everyday into something special. So I did a lot of experimenting with lighting, tabletop photography, shooting through my binoculars (early telephoto experiments) and photographing lightning storms. All of it a great deal of fun.


SF: Who would you cite as an influence(s)?

JR: First off my father, who picked up his cameras secondhand in pawn shops between Kansas and Texas on his truck route. That’s what got me started. But then when I was beginning in newspapers it would have been the great documentary photographers like W. Eugene Smith and David Douglas Duncan.


SF: Is there a particular working photographer who you enjoy or for whom you have a special respect or appreciation?

JR: I think several of my colleagues at National Geographic fall into that category. I think of John Stanmeyer who is just dogged in getting to the heart of stories. And Peter Essick who does such wonderful images of the environment, particularly when the story is difficult and not obviously “visual.”


SF: There are continuous technological advances being made in photography.  Do you still shoot any film or are you strictly digital now – and do you think mirror-less cameras will overtake the DSLR?

JR: I don’t shoot any film; switched completely as soon as I could after I got my first digital camera (a Nikon D100). Never looked back. Mirror-less cameras will overtake DSLR’s, almost certainly. For many purposes they already have.


SF: In this digital age just about anyone with a camera phone might refer to himself/herself as a “photographer”.  Do you think the proliferation of these devices has, for the lack of a better term, “dumbed down” photography?  And is this necessarily a good or bad thing?

JR: I don’t think the proliferation of camera phones has dumbed down photography any more than the printing press dumbed down writing. It has expanded the range, democratized the communications, made it possible for virtually anyone to speak “photography” as a second language, and elevated the best photography even higher by simply setting bar higher.  All to the good.


SF: If you could only take one camera body and lens (or maybe you’d choose your camera phone?) to shoot your favorite subject, what would you choose or consider your “go to” options?

JR: I’d probably take my Nikon D800e and my 16-35 Nikkor. But that is because you said to photograph my favorite subject and that would probably be the Hebrides of Scotland – and that means I need a lens that can take half gray filters, thus eliminating my 14-24mm Nikkor. The subject dictates the camera.


SF: If you had to choose your one, favorite place to shoot where would that be and why?

JR: Oh, as I mentioned above it might be the Hebrides of Scotland. Or it might be Cuba, Kansas, the little town where I have been taking pictures for 35 years.


SF: In your opinion, what makes a photograph “great” or exceptional?  Are there certain elements you look for?

JR: I look for the direct communications, the elegant way it goes straight to the heart of the matter. I’m almost totally ecumenical when it comes to style as long as the effect is direct communications.


SF: How much would you say you rely upon post-processing versus trying to get it “right” at the time of image capture, such as through the use of ND filters, lighting systems, etc.?

JR: I try to get it as right as I can in the camera. For National Geographic we are pretty much in the non-fiction photography business, so there is a real limit on how much post processing can be done. Tonality, contrast, dodge-and-burn are pretty much OK. Beyond that it’s all thin ice out to the really deep waters of Photoshop.


SF: How do you catalog, archive and backup decades worth of photographic images – and how much of what you originally take winds up being kept?  Has everything been digitally converted?

JR: I catalog in Aperture, for me the very best of the cataloging software today. (I can’t imagine why photographers don’t catalog their work more effectively.) I have about 600,000 images in my main Aperture catalog that I work out of on a daily basis. All of that takes up about 10TB on a 5-bay drive (JBOD, not RAID.) which I back up off site. And then I use PhotoShelter. And then, of course, anything I shoot for National Geographic is also fully stored in their archives.

As for shooting, I keep every frame. But in practical terms a full NG shoot, which might be 40,000 frames results in a core set of images numbering several hundred that get the brunt of the use. We show about 40 to the editors, from which 10-20 are used in the layout.

Only a fraction of all the slides (from the film years) has been digitized. Most of it probably will never be scanned.

SF: What do you consider to be your proudest accomplishment, or greatest work, as a professional photographer to date?

JR: I was named Honored Citizen of Cuba, Kansas for photographing their community. I was named Kansan of the Year for photographing our Flint Hills. Mostly I count my accomplishments in terms of taking on stories that no one else wanted to photograph and making them sing in the pages of National Geographic. (The Ogallala Aquifer was one such.)


SF: Lastly, using your remarkable talents as a photographer, what would you still most like to accomplish?

JR: Probably I’d like to get my photo files in order and not feel like it’s a total mess all the time. Actually, it would be to get all the photo books I have threatened to do done.