Jim Richardson wins 5th annual Photographer’s Photographer Award

Photo by Vincent J. Musi

Every year on the last day of the National Geographic seminar on photography, all of the photographers gather to share the work they have done over the past year.  The afternoon begins by honoring one of their own with an award chosen with a vote by current NGM photographers.

Perhaps the greatest pleasure I get from being head of the Photographer’s Advisory Board is to give out the annual National Geographic Photographer’s Photographer Award. To me, there is no greater honor than to be recognized by ones peers, especially with a crowd as accomplished as this.  The award is for the photographer who has most inspired us by expanding the possibilities of our medium. This definition is purposely vague, as what inspires is almost always something unexpected.

In this room today, I think it’s fair to say, is the largest assembly of great photographic talent in the world.  Take a look around… it’s pretty impressive.  So I know what you’re thinking… a lot of people have had their turn… Maybe, just maybe, this time it’s me?

Well, the mathematical probability of that is getting less likely every year. Over the past few years there have been about a dozen new photographers publishing features stories in NGM every year, and the number of photographers in the PAB has grown from about 80 to over 140. But if you look at the winners of this award, they tend not to be the young punks working their way into the club, but instead they have all been part of the “old guard”: The first winner, Bill Allard is 77, and he’s still kicking ass, and of the other winners, the youngest “punk” among them is Carsten Peter who is 55.

While it may seem that editorial photography is a young person’s game, this year’s honoree is also not one of the youngest ponies in the stable.  When I think of this photographer, I’m reminded of the old Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson song Old Age and Treachery:

 Even though we’ve spent our lives charging up the wrong side of the hill

Old age and treachery always overcomes youth and skill

In the five years that this award has been given out, the voting has almost always been very close.  That’s not a big surprise, as the magazine is always filled with exceptional work.  This year was no exception. Until the last day of voting we had a three-way tie, which was broken by half a vote when one of you voted for two people!  So this year’s winner has been elected by the grace of a hanging shad! And the other two candidates will have to resign themselves to claiming that they either invented the Internet or discovered global warming.

This year’s winner tends to photograph stories than few people in this room would want to touch. When giving advice to young photographers, I often find myself quoting this old pro, saying “if you want to take more interesting pictures, stand in front of more interesting things!”  But what’ curious about this photographer is that what he finds interesting are things that most of us find dull… until he photographs them… and gets an astonishing image.  It’s really the most difficult thing to do, but for this particular photographer that’s normal.  While many of have tended to find a particular niche or style of seeing, this photographer eschews that approach, and his style is virtually invisible.  His job is to be true to the story, in the cleanest and freshest way possible.  I also hear that he is quite accomplished tuba player, and plays in a brass quartet, but that is another story….

A little over a year ago I went to visit with him in his studio while I was on assignment for this magazine.  Some photographers can be a little territorial about that kind of thing, but not this guy.  He opened up his mind to my assignment, and gave me all kinds of wonderful ideas that only a local would know.  But what really impressed me was when he showed me what he had been working on, and I saw how this the old pro had re-invented himself.

He had finagled a gig to shoot a series of environmental portraits all over the world, and wanted a different look. He was after an artificially lit, large-format image, but he had small budget and brutal itinerary.   So he and had to be able to travel light and shoot quickly, with all his camera and lighting gear fitting into a single roll-aboard suitcase.  He had found a new kind of small strobe that could shoot in a super short burst and be synchronized at such a high shutter speed that he could should flash pictures in broad daylight with only a few inches of depth of focus.  When I saw the pictures he had taken, it was a WOW moment for me.  They were absolutely beautiful, but a total departure from anything he had ever done before.  Who says an old dog can’t teach himself new tricks!

A psychology major in college, this photographer began his career in 1971 as an intern at the Topeka Capital-Journal.  He was one of the young ponies in the stable of legendary editor Rich Clarkson, a man who is one of the great talent finders in American photography. Rich recalls that this photographer, while incredibly gifted, was also the most hair-brained and disorganized person he’d ever met. He got a call one day from this photographer’s landlord about overdue rent, and when he went to visit the bachelor pad he shared with a sports writer, Rich found a stack of payroll checks languishing on top of the TV. But marriage changed all that, and now this photographer is one of the most meticulous and detail-oriented people you will ever meet. When Rich became Director of Photography here, this shooter joined the new crew that revolutionized photography at The Geographic.  But now, thirty years later, he’s still reinventing his technique. Or to put it another way, technical innovation and great story telling are always winning combination!

So without any more futile attempts at veiled description, I would like to ask Rich Clarkson to come up and present the fifth annual National Geographic Photographer’s Photographer Award to our very own tuba player and Kansan of the Year, Jim Richardson!