“Landscapes are the stage upon which life plays out.” – Jim Richardson
Jim Richardson, esteemed American photographer and judge of our 2023 Landscape Award (open for entries until the end of the month) has dedicated decades of his life to telling some of the most important environmental stories of our time. As one of National Geographic’s most influential photographers, Richardson has left an indelible mark on the medium, capturing some of the most compelling landscape images of recent decades.
Richardson’s passion for photography was ignited during his formative years on his family’s farm in Kansas. He recalls, being a ‘shy, loner kid who didn’t particularly like cows’, and so instead, he filled much of his time with various hobbies and interests, including, from around age 11, photography.
During this time, his father would often drive long haul to Texas to deliver eggs from local farms, and along the way would visit pawn shops to find photography equipment for his son. One such visit yielded a Zeiss Ikoflex which would become Jim’s first camera, while an additional stroke of luck led to the discovery of a darkroom kit, which Jim set up in their kitchen.
In those early years, Richardson’s fascination with natural landscapes also began to flourish. Alongside his photographic interests in pets, microbiology (thanks to his microscope), lightning storms, and go-kart racing, the wealth of natural scenery around his home held a prominent place in his early repertoire.
“I always felt the land could speak to me, had stories to tell about their genesis and formation and the history that shaped them. I learned early on the value of going out in the woods, sitting down, being quiet and listening.”
However, his first significant project centered around people, rather than landscapes. He left his psychology major at Kansas State University during his senior year to become a full-time photographer for student publications, and later, for local daily newspaper The Topeka Capital-Journal. It was during this period that he completed his celebrated project on high school students in the town of Rossville. Captured over the course of three years and published in 1979, ‘High School USA’ provides a captivating window into small-town American life during that era, and it is now regarded as one of the seminal American photo series of its time.
Although Richardson continued to create stories centred on people throughout his career – including a four-decade-long project showcasing life in the small city of Cuba in his home state – natural landscapes would always be his most prominent muse.
“Photographers often think of landscapes as just a category of photography. But the land itself has other stories to tell, of monumental forces battling for the fate of creation, of catastrophic violence alternating with timeless patience, of anguish as well as beauty. Landscape photography is as much about learning to read the land as it is about how to compose pictures. Landscapes are the stage upon which life plays out.”
Following his early work for college magazines, he contributed to notable publications such as the Denver Post and the New York Times, and in 1984, began his remarkable journey with National Geographic.
Richardson will forever be synonymous with Scotland, thanks to the breathtaking images he has captured of its wild and rugged landscapes, yet despite his Celtic roots, it was a chance conversation with the National Geographic director of photography, Tom Kennedy, that first kindled his connection with the country.
“I’d pulled off a thankless story the magazine needed, and he was feeling grateful. ‘I know you’d like to do a story in England,’ he said. ‘I don’t have that, but I’ve got a story on Scotland. Want to try that?’ Of course! Never mind that, at the time, I couldn’t find Edinburgh on a map. Still, I dove in.”
Assigned with the seemingly impossible task of encapsulating the essence of Scotland in just 20 images, Richardson fell in love with the country almost immediately. He discovered a place that echoed his rural upbringing but with added layers of history and culture (reminiscent of the Great Plains he knew and loved), a land of lighthouses, beaches, islands, and enigmatic people. This marked the beginning of a profound and enduring relationship with Scotland, yielding some of the most compelling images of the country ever captured.
Although distilling an entire country into 20 images appeared an insurmountable challenge, Richardson’s body of work over the decades came remarkably close to achieving this feat. His beautifully composed photographs capture the rugged beauty of Scotland’s rural landscapes, from sweeping highland scenes and tranquil lochs to remote, rugged islands adorned with lighthouses and framed by coves and tiny fishing villages.
In addition to his work in the British Isles, Richardson’s contributions to National Geographic included extensive projects on his homeland, covering topics related to the environment and agriculture.
He embarked on a project highlighting the global challenges of feeding a growing population on dwindling land, which took him across the world. Notably, he also rekindled his childhood love of telescopes when he delved into the issue of light pollution, highlighting how most of the world’s population may never again witness the Milky Way.
Over the course of his illustrious career, Richardson has produced over 50 stories for National Geographic and National Geographic Traveler magazines, capturing images that not only showcase the incredible beauty of the natural world and the resilience of those who call it home, but also address some of the key challenges humanity faces.
Whether the subject is landscapes or people, what is invariably clear is that Richardson possesses a profound connection with his photography subjects—a connection that serves as an invaluable lesson for photographers everywhere.
“I expect photographs to say something, to be moving, to have an emotional impact. Of course, I value technical excellence and strong composition in landscape photography. However, when I look at photographs, I first listen to my gut; I want to be moved. So my advice is to look beyond the standard landscapes and well-worn locations. Find something that truly touches the soul. If it touches mine, it may touch others.”
All images © Jim Richardson
Our 2023 Landscape Photography Award is open for entries until November 30 and all photographers are invited to submit their work here.