Published: April 2007
Jim Richardson
Interview by Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa

"I come from Kansas," Richardson says, "so I've always known that my state suffers from an inferiority complex. I went out determined that the Flint Hills, where the preserve is located, wouldn't be playing second fiddle to other, more famous American landscapes in the pages of National Geographic. So this story was a mission of sorts."

What was your best experience during this assignment?

Having the luxury to do aerial photography over the Flint Hills was the high point of this assignment, from a professional as well as a personal point of view. These hills are extraordinarily difficult to photograph on the ground. What you think you see simply doesn't show up in a 35mm frame. There's a little strip of hills across the center, lots of brown at the bottom, and blue at the top. That was very disappointing.

But once I got up in the air, I was able to see an incredible myriad pattern of wonderfully poetic contours. I saw beautiful repetitive patterns of hills and ravines cut by flint outcroppings that were once at the bottom of the old Permian Sea. Geology always comes to life from the air, where things that sounded obtuse and arcane in the classroom reveal themselves in living waves of earth and rock. Seeing it all in the spring was even more of a treat. People never associate such green lushness with Kansas. Ireland, maybe, but certainly not Kansas.

What was your worst experience during this assignment?

Each spring the ranchers in the Flint Hills burn off the winter overburden of dried grass to make way for new spring growth. If they don't do this, the prairie will turn to forest. Seen from the air, these fires were quite beautiful, their billowing scallops of smoke spreading over the hills. On the ground, however, they were real and potentially dangerous.

I wanted to get as close as possible to the action. In order to shoot a sunset through the flames, I went to a black area, a place that had already burned and was therefore relatively safe. I knelt down with my face and my wide-angle lens right up close to the fire. A few minutes later, I saw something I wanted to shoot with my telephoto lens, but I wasn't able to see through the darned thing. Had I left the lens cap on? No. The lens was covered with a thick layer of soot. Without realizing it, I'd been dangling that camera over the fire while I was on my knees shooting the sunset with the other one. It took some work, but I was finally able to clean the gook off the lens—all the time fearing that this pricey piece of equipment was toast.

What was the oddest experience you encountered during this assignment?

I had some of my greatest fun shooting prairie-chickens on their booming grounds, hidden spots on the prairie where these birds carry out their mating rituals. I could hear them from a distance, the males making these strange booming sounds while inflating the orange sacs on the sides of their necks. But in order to photograph them, I had to arrive long before sunrise to set up a blind of hay bales to hide behind with my cameras.

One morning after taking a short nap while waiting for some sunlight, I was amazed to see that one very brave bird had flown right up and landed on my blind. There he was, just two feet (one meter) in front of me, looking me in the eye. Up that close, he looked remarkably like a barnyard chicken, not at all wild. And he was blocking my view, making it impossible to photograph the other birds. So I reached up and gave him a firm but gentle push on the posterior. He squawked and flew away. I may be the only photographer who's ever poked a wild prairie-chicken on the butt.