Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.
Every tale must find a conclusion, and so must my visual tale of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland appearing in this month's National Geographic magazine.
I found my frame 9,128—the story's closing image—on the Grimersta River on the Isle of Lewis on a foggy morning as waters tumbled over a granite sill.
I would not know for some time to come why this image was so right for the story's ending.
As photography goes, frame 9,128 was a fairly straightforward bit of photographic technique. Photographers have their array of skills to call upon, just as golfers, violinists, and brain surgeons do. Everyone has their methods—pieces of a repertoire, so to speak—and spend time practicing and honing them.
So it was this particular morning. First I put on a gentle half-gray filter to bring down the sky's tonality so that wispy fog, so lovely, would not be lost in the camera. Then I added another neutral density filter, this one very dark, indeed, a full f/5 black beast. You can see through it, but just barely. The advantage is that it forces the use of a long time exposure. And with a time exposure, the water tumbling over the granite rocks turns silvery and smooth, a bit of poetry about the physics of falling water and fluid dynamics. The resulting picture carried a soft sense of mystery.
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At layout time back at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., the editing team puzzled around with several images for the closer. Nothing seemed to fit just right. Most were too declarative, too forceful for this place in the narrative. These photographs were fine for carrying the visual narrative forward, but not for concluding it.
Somewhere amid the ferment I put forth the idea of using frame 9,128 in this spot. This photograph had never gotten much attention before and probably would never have been used elsewhere in the article, I believe. But as the closing picture, it had a gentle way of punctuating the story. It was the period to the other photographs' exclamation point. It worked.
What remained lacking was the narrative justification for this picture in this place. When we show the finished layout to the editor, it is the photographer's job to narrate the showing and to make the case for why we are telling the story in this way. I needed a reason—something more than a feeling—that this picture should be the closer. Finally, that reason came to me (or maybe I just stumbled upon it).
While reading about the Grimersta and the fishing lodge for which it is famous, I came across this nugget: The lodge's guides (known as gillies) are sworn to secrecy about the fishing. That, I thought, was how it should be. Places in this world, as well as people, deserve to keep a bit of mystery about them. Certainly the Hebrides will always be one of those places where mystery will never entirely be replaced by knowledge. It is a place to keep us humble.
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Now, the final act.
With layouts done, I faced the regrettable task of putting the rest of the pictures away. Many came so close to making the layout but now would fade into oblivion. Some would get resurrected for the magazine's website and some would find a home in the National Geographic Image Collection, where they may see use in future publications.
But the lion's share of the photographs that I shot for this story will never see the light of day again. Frankly, some of these images should go straight to the trash. I look at them and wonder whatever possessed me to click the shutter in the first place.
But many fine pictures remain, and every last one taught me something: If the next picture was better, it was because I learned something by doing the previous one.
Tomorrow I want to wrap up my own tale of this body of work by giving proper homage to the pictures that didn't make it.