‘More Grit Than Glamour’

Photographer Jim Richardson tells Brandon Hoops the story behind a great picture from Scotland

By / April 2013

The Laird of Muck, a man of gentle speech and improbable intrigue, stands atop his island on an October afternoon, petting his sheepdog. He is settled and reticent, even as the wind voices its frustration and tries to sweep us over the 400-foot cliff into the riotous expanse of Atlantic Ocean below.

It is of no use waiting for the weather to be more compliant. The immense clouds and sputtering rain are steady accompaniment this time of year on Muck, a 2.5-mile long, 1-mile wide speck among the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. So I point my camera toward the eagle-eyed gaze of Lawrence MacEwen and capture the moment.

Scotland entered my life in 1994 while on my first assignment for National Geographic. But it didn’t become my obsession until I started pushing out into the edges, the dramatic and wild territories like Muck, where the Scots and Vikings once vied for dominance, and where the crown still seems to be kept at bay.

To imagine MacEwen’s domain, which has been in his family for well over 100 years, don’t think Downton Abbey. This is not a land of Edwardian society or luxurious privileges. Living on an island is tough work. It’s more grit than glamour. There is one road with one lane, no stores, and electricity comes between 8-11 in the morning and 5-10 at night. The essential tradition carried on among most of its 39 residents is farming.

Such asperity can lend itself to stereotypes, like the backwoods or redneck labels that are tossed around so easy back in the States. But having grown up as a Midwesterner, surrounded by seas of corn and wheat, I’ve grown accustomed to rooting my images in the richness of everyday life in remote places.

Take for instance, Cuba, Kansas, a small town I’ve documented for 38 years. It is a place that barely registers on a map, and, like many towns of this size, might be slipping away, but from my vantage point, I’ve found intriguing lives built on layers of culture, personality, and legends. I keep going back. I keep finding stories to tell.

In Muck, the theme is transferable. Only the backdrop is different. My intention is to pay attention and notice details and try to put the pieces into pictures that have depth.

But this means I can’t just wander out the door and expect something interesting to happen. I have to research and know my stuff, so as to heighten my sense of seeing. This means the work I do from my office in Lindsborg, Kansas, is just as essential to my job. It’s at my desk that I discover compelling subjects like MacEwen, with rich and varied histories, who can carry themes in my photography.

At the last level, the question is, how do I go from making pictures that are records to making pictures that are statements? Letting photography speak is one of the hardest things to learn and pull off, especially if you’re trying to speak intentionally instead of reactively.

It isn’t as simple as standing with MacEwen on top of his wind-swept island, or walking at his side as he tends to his sheep. Just showing up and paying attention isn’t enough to get the job done. It is only after I enter into the spirit of the place, or better yet, it enters me, that I can treat it appropriately, pull back the curtain and help the world see a face like MacEwen’s that carries just as much force as the craggy hills and rugged terrain spread out over his left shoulder.


Jim Richardson, 65, has traveled the world as a photographer for National Geographic Magazine, but he roots himself in Lindsborg, Kansas, where his work is featured at his gallery, Small World, on Lindsborg’s Main Street.