Through the eyes of Richard Olsenius

By Theresa Palmquist/El Inde

It was the 1960s when Richard Olsenius swapped the Midwest for Manhattan, where he worked as a copy aide for Life magazine. He bought his first 35mm camera and took photographs for fun but dreamed of being a guitar player and songwriter. 

That dream was short-lived when he signed up for an open mic night at a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop in the Village. Richard was about to perform on stage when he forgot the lyrics to his song. It was your classic case of stage fright. In this moment he realized he liked being behind the camera—not in front of it.

Richard’s earliest memory of his interest in photography was when he was 8 or 9 years old. “For some reason, I wanted to learn how to develop film in a darkroom … and got really interested in working down in the darkroom that I built,” he said. 

Richard is an award-winning photographer, videographer and music composer whose 50-year career has taken him around the United States, throughout South America and across the Arctic Ocean via the Northwest Passage. He was a contract photographer and photo editor for National Geographic magazine. Before he went to the Geographic’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., Richard worked for his hometown paper—the Minneapolis Tribune. At the Tribune, his photo story on Cambodian refugees fleeing to Thailand won the 1980 World Press Photo Award. 

Richard is best known for capturing memorable moments in photographs that reveal a sense of place. “He would have shot a picture on a street that I had driven down for 20 years, and he saw in a way that I would never have ever seen it,” said Kent Kobersteen, former director of photography at National Geographic

Back to the Midwest

After his year in the Big Apple, Richard returned to Minneapolis with his 35mm camera. He photographed street life and local high school students. 

Richard also enrolled in journalism classes at the University of Minnesota. He chose journalism because of his passion for photography and film. Richard excelled in these classes and even married one of his classmates, Christine, who is a writer. The couple met in a photography class in 1968 and married three years later.

In the early years of their relationship, Christine remembers fondly how the two would discuss his photography and dreams of working for Look magazine. “They did big black-and-white stories all over the world, and so that was his dream,” she said. “And I was going to write and travel with him.”

Their dreams began to come true in 1969, when Richard became an intern at the Minneapolis Star, which was the evening paper. In his early days as an intern, Richard curated his highly praised street photography gallery called “High School,” which depicts the lives of teenagers at an urban high school in the ’60s. 

After two years Richard grew tired of being an intern and began looking for a full-time job where he could be out capturing timeless moments. 

The chief photographer for the morning paper recognized Richard’s talent and hired him full-time at the Minneapolis Tribune. Richard spent the next decade driving around Minnesota photographing people and listening to their stories. 

Cambodia Coverage

In 1979 the Tribune sent Richard to Cambodia to cover the mass migration and starvation of Cambodians as they fled to refugee camps in Thailand. The experience still conjures up raw emotions of empathy and astonishment.

Out in the field one day, Richard saw a local man who had been shot and left for dead in a thicket. Richard sat with the wounded man until he drew his last breath. Watching from a few feet away, with guns tucked in their belts, stood the group of men who had shot the man. “It was never fear that really took over my feelings, but the exhaustion of seeing man’s inhumanity to man day after day,” he said. 

Soon afterward, in 1980, Richard resigned from the Minneapolis Tribune and started to shoot as a freelancer. He drove around Nebraska, Kansas and the Dakotas with his large-format 4×5 camera. The large sheets of film (4″x5″or bigger) produced sharp, grain-free pictures.

New to National Geographic

Over the years Richard had kept in touch with Kent Kobersteen, who had worked with him at the Tribune. In 1982 Kobersteen was hired by National Geographic magazine as a photo editor and was later promoted to director of photography. 

One day in 1985, when Richard was in his Minneapolis basement mounting prints, he received a call from Kobersteen offering him his first assignment for the magazine. Richard said he never “chased after” Geographic, but it was his black-and-white portfolio that was instrumental in landing this assignment. 

“There’s only one photographer I brought to Geographic, and that’s not because we were friends,” Kobersteen said. “That’s because of his unique vision.” 

Richard’s first (of many) assignments as a contract photographer for the magazine took him close to home—a story on Lake Superior. His photographs of the lake captured its vastness and incomprehensible beauty. 

Richard’s time at National Geographic led to many more adventures and memorable experiences.

Inuit Adventure

In the summer of 1987, Richard was at the top of Baffin Island to photograph the Inuit hunters who inhabit remote villages in the Arctic region of Alaska and Canada. He traveled with the hunters when they went onto the sea ice searching for whales. “There is absolute quiet out there on the ice,” Richard said. 

Early one morning the hunters dashed alongside the edge of the ice chasing a beluga whale. They hurdled over blocks of ice, with Richard following far behind, carrying one camera and draping the other around his neck. 

Suddenly, Richard stepped onto some broken ice and fell through into the frigid Arctic Ocean. The camera with a wide-angle lens sank with him into the water. He held the other camera with a big telephoto lens over his head. 

The water began to fill Richard’s parka and wind pants as he screamed, “Help! Help! Help!” 

One of the hunters, Thomas, heard the cries for help and quickly ran back to find Richard. Thomas stood on a solid piece of ice near Richard, and they both stretched their arms out as far as they could. They locked their fingers together “like a railroad coupling,” Richard said, and Thomas pulled him onto the ice. 

“It’s funny how one minute you’re thinking ‘This is it. I’m going to sink maybe a mile to the bottom of the Baffin Bay,’” Richard recalled. “And then, shortly after, I’m laughing about it all while I’m drying off my credit cards.”

Freelance at Last 

In 1995 Richard was promoted from staff photographer to photo editor. 

After working as a National Geographic photo editor for four years, he grew bored with office work. He resigned from the magazine in 1999, and a year later he and author Garrison Keillor collaborated on a book, In Search of Lake Wobegon, about a mythical lake in Minnesota. 

Now Richard had all the time in the world to travel, and that’s exactly what he did. 

Way West

Richard and Christine traveled in their Airstream across the Midwest and western United States to work on their “Way West” project. This compilation of photographs, video clips and music depicts the wide-open beauty of the rural United States. 

The couple trailered through the Front Range of the Rockies and into the Southwest, where they found themselves in Southern Arizona. And for now, this is where they are going to stay. 

They parked their Airstream in a storage lot and drove their truck back to Maryland to sell their house. 

Here in Green Valley, in the shadow of the Santa Rita Mountains, Richard is compiling his life’s musical and photographic work onto one easily accessible platform—a website called AmericanLandscapeGallery.com. 

Throughout his 50-year career, Richard has met and touched the lives of many people, using his camera as a passport. Being with people who let you into their lives is addictive. His memorable images tell stories that range from deserted Midwestern towns and refugees seeking asylum to the special relationship between man and his mutt. 

As Richard archives his life’s work in his new Green Valley home studio, his taste for travel lingers. Thinking about his Airstream, he said, “It’s sitting out there like a silver bullet in a storage park with a bunch of other lonely trailers waiting to hit the road.”

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