Photograph by Jim Richardson
"If you think the ocean and the atmosphere are important—get a load of dirt.”
What did you think when you were asked to photograph a story about soil?
I knew when we started talking about the story that we were biting off a lot. When you have an assignment to do something like the Grand Canyon you think, Oh yeah, I can do that, because the Grand Canyon has done half the work. With soil—I always knew this was going to be a real tooth puller.
Why did you think it would be such a challenge?
I just couldn’t fall back on pictures of farmers kneeling down and holding soil in their hands. I had to find ways of making soil relevant to people and graphically interesting. Basically you’re talking about the dirt beneath our feet—and how many ways can you make those pictures? It was a big research project and a big imagination project. There was a lot of head-scratching going on and thinking, What am I going to photograph?
How did you ultimately decide what and where to shoot?
I was convinced that just the soil itself would not be a real page-turner. I started thinking that I wanted to talk about real people out there—soil is not some esoteric thing of concern only to farmers. It is the very stuff that makes life on our planet possible. I wanted people to look at these pictures and see that there is a fundamental difference as to why we in the United States can afford to grow corn for fuel whereas people in subsaharan Africa can barely feed their children. It’s not just that we have bigger tractors—the soil itself is different. I had to have this contrast between the corn farmer in Iowa who has a lot of topsoil versus that woman in Niger who is trying to feed her children with what she can grow in soil that is about as unproductive as you can possibly get.
So you went around the world to make images of soil. What about the images of roots?
These images were a collaboration with Jerry Glover of the Land Science Institute. It’s not an easy thing. You simply can’t dig up the plant, and you can’t dig down and see the roots. Jerry had been developing technology whereby he could plant a plant like Indian grass or big bluestem and then extract it from the ground and expose the roots. He planted them in a steel tube and then put that in the ground and let them grow for a year, a year and a half. So while he’s growing the plants, I’m thinking about how to photograph them. Some of the pictures were a good two years from the beginning until the photograph was done.
That’s a lot of time. How did you end up photographing them?
Jerry would extract the steel tube out of the ground with a crane, split the tube in half, open it up and put this whole chunk of dirt with the plant in it on a large screen table, so you can then take a hose and wash the dirt out of the roots. He came [to my studio] with a number of these plants. One of them was this great big, magnificent Indian grass, which was four feet aboveground and ten feet of root below ground. You can't get the size and scale of it when it's laid out in front of you. So I bought a 14-foot-long piece of Plexiglas that I could lay the plant on so I could light it from below and then the plant would appear as if it were sitting out in space. I had a welder build a frame to hold the Plexiglas, then I mounted a camera on a 12-foot ladder pointing straight down so I could essentially lay the plant out on the Plexiglas and move it–the plant, the Plexiglas, and all.
Do you have a favorite photo?
I had such a wonderful time photographing Yacouba in the village where he lived with all the women—his wives and daughters and relatives—gathered around him and grain in the background. That was quite a wonderful moment, because you could tell how much the women of the village admired him—they would poke fun at him so he would blush and smile. When we were done shooting that picture, everyone applauded me. Of course I applauded back. It was really a wonderful moment.