Behind the lens: National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson reflects on his career, life

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During a gallery walk in his exhibit Beneath The Prairie Sky, Jim Richardson explains the first black and white photographs featured in the Vanier Gallery at the Beach Museum on March 10, 2016. The exhibit runs from March 8 through June 16, 2016 and features a progression of work from Richardson's career as a photographer at the Topeka Capitol Journal and National Geographic. (File Photo by Evert Nelson | The Collegian)

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then Jim Richardson, 68, of Lindsborg, Kansas, is the author of a library detailing the various places he has seen over a career spanning 30 years and multiple continents.

Richardson, whose work has taken him to places as far as the Hebrides Islands in Scotland and as nearby as Cuba, Kansas, is a well-known photographer for National Geographic and contributing editor to its sister magazine, National Geographic Traveler. His most recent project, “Beneath the Prairie Sky,” which chronicles the modern settlers and inhabitants of the Flint Hills, is currently being exhibited at the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art.

Richardson said the exhibition is about “the personality and psyche that are emblematic of the very Plains.”

“(The exhibition) developed out of this westward expansion about 150 years ago out onto the Plains and into a harsh environment that was barely able to sustain the dreams of the people coming out,” Richardson said. “It’s a story of expansion and entrenchment with some successes and some failures and a long-term tempering of what we think is possible in this environment, a broad, open place where people could essentially project their dreams and wishes on a blank slate and somehow make the world into what they would have it be.”

Aileen June Wang, associate curator of the Beach Museum, said the exhibition displays Richardson’s reflections on what it means to live on the Great Plains.

“Plants and grasses have roots that go through cracks very deep to get to water,” Wang said. “These plants struggle to survive, but they somehow manage. Richardson makes a comparison from these plants to the people who live beneath the prairie sky. These people have to endure a lot of hardship, but through it all, they can create a community and survive.”

Richardson said the story of these people, descendants of the settlers, is still one of strife and struggle.

“In many places, they didn’t have established models,” Richardson said. “You find people out in the Plains who really went off on a tangent because nobody told them how to do it, how to live their lives.”

In an essay in the program for “Beneath the Prairie Sky,” Wang wrote that the natural forces of the Great Plains, such as “wide open spaces, physically unassuming plant life, majestic cloud formations and a view of a vast horizon touching sky” are vital characteristics of “the psyche of Kansans, for they impact human lives in immediate, forceful and sometimes frightening ways.”

Locations featured in the exhibition include the tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills as well as Cuba, Kansas, a small town of 156 people, which was the focus of one of Richardson’s earliest photo essays, “High School USA.”

“(This is) home,” Richardson said. “Everybody’s got to be from some place. I think that whatever worldview I take out into the rest of the world is tempered by what I learned here in the Midwest, by the basic, fundamental Midwestern views of value and self-decency.”

The subjects of the photo essay, the Great Plains and the people living within, are very personal to his story and background, Richardson said.

“For all the exotic nature of the world, it’s nice to have a place to come back to that you can call home, a place where you can go to a coffee shop and say hi to the folks and feel normal,” Richardson said.

Kathy Richardson, Jim’s wife, said she sees her husband in “Beneath the Prairie Sky.”

“When I see the exhibit, I see a hard working guy, somebody who never expects to get lucky,” Kathy said. “Kind of like the farmers and ranchers, the people who live out on the Plains. I see all of the research that Jim does, all of the miles he’s driven, all of the people he’s talked to, all of the books he’s read, and I know it’s not luck. It’s the hard work that you see every day out on the Great Plains.”

Tallgrass roots

Strongly rooted in the tallgrass landscape of the Great Plains, Jim’s past begins on a Kansas farm not too far from Cuba, Kansas, a town whose essence he would later capture in a photography project spanning almost four decades.

Growing up in the decade immediately following World War II, Jim lived a relatively lonely childhood typical of a farm boy where trees on the bald Flint Hills were more frequent than friends, he said. Photography, among other hobbies, were activities that he did, not necessarily due to pure enjoyment, but rather a lack of alternative forms of entertainment.

“I was a loner kid,” Jim said. “I had to make my own fun. My dad was an enthusiastic amateur photographer, and he also drove a trucking route between Kansas and Texas. He knew all of the pawn shops along the way, and he knew where to stop and find photography equipment for us to use.”

Lacking many human subjects, Jim said he instead focused on documenting life as he saw it. His earliest photographs were of his dog, squirrels in the barn, cottonwood trees in the fall, ducks in the pond and cows. Throughout his years as a professional photographer, he has kept some of the original 50-year-old negatives from his childhood photography.

In his college years, Jim pursued a degree in psychology at K-State while also working as a student photographer at the K-State Collegian. He left his studies during his senior year, just a few hours short of completing his degree, to work at the Topeka Capital-Journal.

“I don’t regret not graduating, especially considering what I could do with the time otherwise,” Jim said. “I’ve toyed with coming back and finishing the degree, but I always found that there were more pressing things to do, and I don’t know what a psych degree would add to what I do.”

At the Capital-Journal, Jim met Kathy and maintained a secret relationship for two years, a task which was very difficult given the “nosy newsrooms,” Kathy said.

Guided by his early experiences at the paper, Jim’s work began to be featured at national-level publications such as The New York Times, Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated. After 15 years of photography, he found himself working regularly for National Geographic.

Jim has published over 30 stories at the magazine since his first one in 1984. The stories can have a narrow, more specific focus in subject matter, something he said is “an oddity in the publishing world.”

People are surprised to find that Lindsborg is home to a well-known photographer, Jim said. The Richardsons own and run Small World Gallery, a shop on Lindsborg’s Main Street that is the only place to buy prints of Jim’s work as well as one-of-a-kind jewelry created by Kathy, according to the business’ website.

A photographer’s process

“How do I get your job?” is a question Jim often receives from amateur photographers, students and professionals alike, he said.

“People want my job because they have a romantic view of it, of an untroubled life traipsing around with a camera in your hand exploring the planet,” Jim said. “While there are aspects of that that are true, and I don’t deny the romance of getting to go out and see the world, the reality of course, is that it’s like any other job, less enjoyment and more anguish than anybody would wish for.”

Kathy said she has come to know the difficulties of life on the road through her husband.

“The work is out there, it’s not here,” Kathy said. “We just always seem to muddle.”

A National Geographic photographer is typically away from home for six months every year, which has not been completely easy for his family, Jim said.

“It’s not always easy being gone,” Jim said. “When my son was younger, I constrained as much as possible the work I did with National Geographic.”

It’s been a question of the both of them being able to balance their home and work lives, Kathy said.

“When our son was younger, there was more balancing that had to go on,” Kathy said. “At that time, I also had some jobs that required me to be on call 24/7.”

Kathy said she knew, however, what kind of life she would have with her husband even when they were first dating.

“The first year we were dating, Jim was shooting a Time Magazine piece at Christmas, so it was an early indication of how our life would be,” Kathy said. “It’s been hard for Jim, too. It’s not necessarily a treat to sleep in a strange bed beyond the nights, on strange roads, working out of a suitcase.”

Long before the shutter snaps shut, the work behind a photo story begins, often weeks before with intensive research on the subject of the photography, Jim said. A large portion of that research is “mechanistic” in that Jim must first understand exactly what he wants to see and how to best frame that subject.

The next component of research is knowing and understanding what is being seen. For one story he shot for National Geographic, there were two audiences that the magazine had in mind: those who lived in and were familiar with the Flint Hills, and people who had not known about the region, Jim said. Many people in the Flint Hills approached him after the story was published to tell him they had not seen the region in that way before.

“People have told me, ‘You know, I drive by that pasture every morning on the way to work, but nobody ever told me it was something,’” Jim said. “The issue there was understanding that the Flint Hills were just as special as any other landscape. They aren’t just hills you drive by every day. Looked at in the right way, they’re just as special as anything else.”

Once on location, Jim spends approximately six weeks shooting in the field for most stories, but some stories take longer. The photographer pointed to his coverage of Cuba, Kansas, which spanned approximately four decades, as a prime example of this.

“There’s certain kinds of things that aren’t revealed in six weeks,” Jim said. “There’s certain things that aren’t revealed in the first 30 years. You learn to recognize the shots and photographs that best tell a story. It’s seasoning and wisdom that come from being exposed to something for a very long time.”

In western China, Jim saw many bizarre things, he said. In a little oasis, he photographed a dentist operating with the bare minimum. Within the dentist’s makeshift office, where he and his family also lived, patients sat on a wooden box, and the dentist performed his work with a foot-powered drill.

“The great thing, though, is no matter how bizarre it gets, there’s always an underlying logic,” Jim said. “No matter how freaky and weird people’s lives become, you know there’s a reason why they do what they do. They’re not capricious for doing what they do. People are smart, and they figure the most bizarre ways of doing things, but they always have their reasons.”

As a child developing amateur photographs in a dark room, Jim has seen the evolution of photography technology, especially in the past few decades, he said. The photographer has remained current in the profession by developing his online and social media presence. He regularly posts photographs from the field to his Instagram and Tumblr accounts.

“It’s easier to be a photographer now, but harder to make a living out of it,” Jim said. “There’s millions of wonderful photographers. It used to take months to become proficient. Now you could be decent in weeks.”

In a sea of photography, Jim has managed to stand out due to 40 years of experience and an “established reputation of quality work,” he said. The hard “grunt work,” has been especially important in his work.

When he first began covering the islands of Scotland, Jim could not locate Edinburgh on a map of Scotland. Over the course of several years, however, he became quite intimate with the islands. He has been to about 30 of the approximately 100 inhabited islands of the country.

Now, people come to Jim as the expert on photography on the Scottish islands, he said.

“This isn’t just exciting,” Jim said. “It’s deeply rewarding to know that you can take on a subject and conquer it.”

As for his next conquest, Jim said he wishes he could shoot a story about the great orchestras of the world, as well as complete his mission to visit each of Scotland’s inhabited islands.

Ultimately, Jim said he empathizes with the rose-tinted lens with which people view his occupation.

“It’s a job,” he said. “It’s work. There have always been prices to pay for doing that kind of thing. At the most deep-seated level, people realize that the world is a wonderful place if only they could get to the right place to see it. That’s an admirable, fundamental belief.”

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I'm Rafael Garcia, and I'm a 2019 K-State graduate in journalism and former editor-in-chief of the K-State Collegian. I believe that much of the world's problems come from a lack of understanding of other people, but by telling other people's stories and finding the good in the world, I think we can increase our understanding and appreciation of each other. Questions, comments, concerns, news tips? Email the Collegian team at news@kstatecollegian.com.