Photograph by Jim Richardson

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Dumb Blind Luck

Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

So earlier I held forth about aerial photography and the virtues of preparation and foresight and just generally about being smart whenever you get the chance. And I held forth as if that's what I do all the time.

Today it's time for confession and this is a pretty good picture to be confessing about. There I was in Scotland, just happily looking through the viewfinder of a Nikon N90 (sweet camera for the era) mounted on my 80-200 f/2.8 Nikkor sitting on a tripod, staring at Rusty and Tufty, two of the hulkiest Highland cattle I had ever seen. I was there photographing whisky country for National Geographic Traveler magazine and so I was in the Highlands town of Dalwhinnie, home of the eponymous whisky. Highland "coos" (as the Scots like to call them) are not exactly a profound photographic subject but I wasn't feeling particularly profound, anyway. I just couldn't think of anything better to point my camera at.

When suddenly, out of nowhere, this guy with Mohawk hair and a leather jacket walked into my viewfinder. I never saw him coming at all. Hardly had a chance to pop my head over the camera to see if what I was seeing in the viewfinder was, in fact, real when he pulled out a loaf of white bread and started feeding Rusty and Tufty, who seemed to be well acquainted with the drill. Recovering swiftly (I try to do that when good fortune rescues me from my general incompetence), I hit the motor drive and let it run.

Just dumb blind luck!

Which I will never, ever turn down. And I will always thanks the gods of fortune for shining their light on me for just a moment. And I will never, ever get over the feeling of just how wonderful it is when this happens, when the world presents you with a moment of splendid reality, when the serendipity of life just seems so deliciously improbable and yet so absolutely right.

Well, there it is. I didn't deserve it but I got it. That's my confession.

So I took the gift. And from time to time I tell the story of my luck and it's always a good anecdote, the kind that we photographers love to embrace, that the picture came about by some incredible combination of chance and karma, and isn't it funny.

These anecdotes do make great stories. But they do not make careers. I scraped by that day. Besides that one picture I was a pretty worthless photographer from dawn to dusk. I love those lucky moments, but they scare me, too. I'm basically a nonfiction photographer. I'm utterly dependent on the world to keep supplying moments. And I have the utmost faith that the world is utterly filled with such wonders. What I'm not sure of is whether I'm always smart enough to see it when it's right in front of me.

On that day in Scotland some giant arrow came down and pointed at this scene and said, "It's a picture, dummy, punch the shutter button!" So I did. And so I delivered on that assignment and lived to tell about it.

Dumb blind luck. I'll take it.