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Wishing for More, Working to Get It

Photographer Jim Richardson recalls how working hard for the right shot can result in a big payoff.

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

Recently an old picture brought new rewards. For several reasons.

While putting together a new show for our gallery, I riffled through the files looking for examples of my aerial photography over the years. The show’s simple (but catchy) title: Bird's Eye. Because we own our gallery, I was free to pick whatever images I liked to put on the wall. (That's one of the delicious freedoms of being a gallery owner. Going broke in a creative way is another one.)

Almost immediately I thought of this image of wheat fields in the Palouse region of Washington State. It had never seen the light of day. Yet I remembered well the day I took it—a fresh summer one, puffy clouds casting fast-moving shadows across harvested fields.

And those amazing field patterns. Wheat farming in the Palouse is a dry-land affair, mostly un-irrigated and done in dusty fields that get little rainfall. So its farmers decided long ago to grow a crop every other year, allowing meager moisture to accumulate over two years to grow one good crop. Hence, the fields are planted in the strips that undulate over rolling hills in such geometric splendor.

It was perfect for my visual story for National Geographic magazine. Many of my stories—this one on sustainable agriculture—have been improved by views from the air. High above, the world is chock full of visual answers to questions of geography and form that are difficult to perceive from the ground.

So 20 years after I shot the image, I got out the slide (remember those?) from the thousands of sheets of slides in the file cabinets (remember those too?) and stuck it in the scanner on my desk. Scanning is time consuming, which is why the vast majority of my pictures will never be scanned into digital form and thus will never see the light of day, either. Just the facts of life in our digital age.

While working up that image, I recalled more details of the day spent above the Palouse in a Cessna 172.

A photographer's paradise. And a gullible photographer's doom, as well.

It’s all too easy to get lulled into complacency by the easy visual pickings. Up there, flying with a master pilot and the hawks and eagles, it's easy to believe that a camera pointed in any random direction will produce a masterwork. It won't. Back on the ground and looking at the images, failure will loom just as large. What looked fascinating and monumental in person will all too often look like random, small-scale chatter in the pictures.

Time for a reality check. Pictures still need composition and centers of interest, even when taken from an airplane. I knew that very well on the morning I took this photograph because I have failed at it so many times in the four decades of my shooting career. Which is why I knew I had to do two vital things: organize the patterns in the frame and find something to be the focal point of the image. When I found the farmhouse and barn gleaming white at the end of a field I was pretty sure I had it. After that, it was an issue of figuring out the angle and how the field patterns could be made to line up. So I asked the pilot to circle a few times while I pondered the various possibilities. On one of the passes I saw how the one strip came looming out and ended among the freshly cropped wheat, replete with the patterns of the combine tracks. That was my angle.

Getting the plane in position to shoot it was another matter. Giving directions to a pilot (who, no matter how able, can't see though your viewfinder or into your head) is not always easy. And you want to be low and close to avoid lots of atmospheric haze. It took us over a dozen passes to get it right that morning, flying in toward the fields, almost getting it, then going around again to have another pass while making small corrections in flight path and position.

But I wanted more and was willing to work to get it.

I also wanted the clouds—the whole glorious atmosphere of that day—in the picture. That meant two things: shooting a very wide-angle lens vertically, which would make positioning the aircraft even more critical, and hoping for the clouds to cast shadows in the best places. Many times we would come around into position just as a shadow went over the farmhouse! Fortunately, my pilot had the patience of Job. I don't know if he had ever flown another photographer with my manic obsession before, but he joined in the incredible jubilation when we finally got it. While I was whooping for joy, a small grin of satisfaction crept over his face.

Then the picture slid into oblivion. Good as it was, it didn't make it into the story in National Geographic magazine, and before the era of the web, it just went where most photos went: into a cozy slide sheet among many thousands of slide sheets in the drawers.

For 20 years. Until last week, when I started putting together the show for our gallery with the hope that there might be something worthwhile to pull out from the archives.

On screen the image looked good. Printed to 30" x 45", it looked very good, and it became the signature piece in the exhibit. Watching gallery visitors view the show, I can see that they always stop and enjoy that image. By extension they take away something of the wonder of that day in the Palouse. They'll never feel everything that I felt up there in the air, never know the howling rush of wind as I opened the aircraft window for another run of shooting, never feel the sun coming through the windshield or wonder at the racing shadows. But something of all that comes through. And it is one of the blessings of photography that it can.

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