Shannon Richardson on Creating Environmental Portraits

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All Photographs ©Shannon Richardson

Shannon Richardson is an editorial/commercial photographer based in Amarillo, Texas. His recently-published book "Route 66 American Icon" is a culmination of a six-year project documenting the iconic roadway. Shannon was generous enough to answer some questions about the project and about his work.

B&H Photo: Your images appear to be large format or medium format. What camera, lens and/or film are you shooting with? Why did you pick that, and how does it help you to express yourself creatively?
        
Shannon: I use a Hasselblad 203FE with an 80mm or 110mm lens for most of my work. Depending on the situation, I shoot on T-Max 100 or 400 B&W film, which I develop myself. The Hasselblad has several advantages that appeal to me. It's basically all manual in its functions. This forces you to take your time and pay attention to the process. Since you only get 12 shots to a roll, you try to make every one count. Composing an image in its large viewfinder is fantastic, and I really love the square format. Working with the camera is a ritual of sorts.

B&H Photo: You’ve been shooting commercial and advertising work for years. What’s it like to change things up and shoot documentary projects, like Route 66?

Shannon: My Route 66 project started off like most of my personal work does—by accident. I began photographing along Route 66 in 2004, during a commercial shoot in Tucumcari, NM. I was fascinated by the still-existing section of the old highway running through the middle of the town. It got me interested in exploring the entire route from Chicago to Los Angeles. Over the course of the next several years, I shot quite randomly, with no particular goal for the images, until I was approached about licensing some of the photographs for the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas. After going through everything I had up to that point so that they could select what they wanted, I realized I almost had enough for a book. So from then I made the project a priority, and published the book in 2011.

B&H Photo: Tell us about Route 66. What’s it about, and how has it been received so far?

Shannon: Route 66 is the quintessential American road trip. I wanted to document it in a cinematic and nostalgic style. Unlike most books about Route 66 which are mostly in color, I shot all the images on traditional B&W film. The photographs capture the road's iconic architecture, motels, diners, gas stations and quirky attractions. Although the images are contemporary, they convey the essence of Route 66's famed past and present. So far the book has received positive feedback and has been successful beyond my expectations. It's gotten my work out to a wider audience, and opened up some new opportunities for me, as well.
     
 B&H Photo: What about “Texas is a Fine Place to Die?” What was that about?

Shannon: "Texas is a Fine Place to Die" is an ongoing project that I have been working on for the past several years. I became interested in exploring and photographing the small towns of the region after watching “Hud,” which is an excellent 1963 black-and-white film that was shot near Amarillo, in the town of Claude. It captured the sparse landscape and iconic Texas rural way of life for that time period. I started building a series of images that portrayed the places, people and traditions that were the transition from the Wild West to the New West—where cowboys drove Cadillacs, and shootouts took place on the screen at the matinee.

A few years back, I posted an early image from the series online. The photo was of a rusting old car behind a chain link fence. An internet acquaintance commented on it saying, “Texas is a fine place to die.” I thought the observation was great, and immediately I knew that that statement characterized the project perfectly.                      

B&H Photo: When you approach subjects, how do you go about figuring out how to compose all of the elements of the environmental portraits that you shoot?

Shannon: It's partly experience, and partly luck. Sometimes I may have the luxury of being in the location for a bit of time, to size up the elements and use them as part of the composition. Many times, though, that's not the case, and I just go with the moment as it happens. I may drive past someone that catches my attention, and I have to swing around, get out and work with what's there. When there’s a specific location that I want to shoot at, I try to be there at optimal times, like when the light is good, or the weather is a certain way. Plus, there is always the experience factor of past successes and failures. Of course, there's always the happy accident—simply being at the right place at the right time.

B&H Photo: What attracts you to your subjects?

Shannon: To put myself face to face with people different from me. It's an interaction that puts me in an awkward position of trying to capture their persona and situation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Robert Adams said it best:

"At our best and most fortunate, we make pictures because of what stands before our camera, to honor what is greater and more interesting than we are. We never accomplish this perfectly, though in return we are given something perfect—a sense of inclusion. Our subject thus redefines us, and is part of the biography by which we want to be known."

      
B&H Photo: Back in school, I was taught that when shooting any sort of series, if a photo isn’t important to the story or if it doesn’t hit you emotionally, throw it out. What is your editing process? How do you cull your images and pick out which ones you’ll run for in your projects?

Shannon: Sometimes I have a pretty good idea of what is going to work, and it's easy to put it together. Other times, though, I just have to play with the images and see what themes emerge. Most of the time, the whole process is a puzzle. When I was working with the Route 66 images, I first thought of editing them by category, such as motels, gas stations, etc. But I finally came to the conclusion that putting them together in geographical order worked better. Then it simply just fell into place, much to my surprise.

B&H Photo: What’s next for you?

Shannon: I want to finish my "Texas is a Fine Place to Die" project, and ultimately publish it as a book. I have also been working on a few other projects which document specific areas of Amarillo. One of those is "Pleasant Valley," and it's being photographed in color, so it's been a new challenge for me.

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I think that Shannon Richardson's choice to use B&W film for his Route 66 project was a brilliant choice. B&W film has a classic look about it. I rediscovered that when I photographed the final Space Shuttle landing on July 21, 2011; since it was a night landing, I figured that color would be wasted. In using the rest of the 3-pack, I fell in love with B&W.

I successfully completed my 2012 New Year's Resolution to shoot the year using B&W film exclusively. It was a year of growth, of experimentation with B&W contrast filters, to learn to visualize in B&W.

Great interview!

Shannon's work is powerful and had inspired me for years. I'm overjoyed that B&H conducted this interview, and am thrilled that his book has been a success.