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Glazer's Camera

Rich Clarkson: Fifty Years at the Top of His Game

PhotoMedia's 2005 Photography Person of the Year: Rich Clarkson PhotoMedia's 2005 Photography Person of the Year: Rich Clarkson
© Stephen Nowland

Known mostly for his pioneering sports shooting, our Photography Person of the Year also has spent half a century as a photojournalist, an editor and a mentor for the next generation of aspiring photographers.

By his own admission, he's no athlete, but Rich Clarkson holds a sports record unlikely to be broken soon: he has just photographed his 50th NCAA college basketball championship. He shot his first back in 1952, and hasn't missed one since 1960. Along the way, Clarkson's pictures have helped redefine the way we look at sports.

The Final Four is just one facet of a remarkable career with roots reaching back to the 1940s and still running full-throttle today. At 72, Clarkson is a photography dynamo, busy with a demanding shooting and teaching schedule. He also runs Rich Clarkson and Associates (richclarkson.com), his Denver-based company that handles book publishing, manages the photo duties of the NCAA championships and two national sports franchises, and mounts a series of highly regarded photography workshops every year. As both a mentor and a colleague, Clarkson has exerted a powerful influence on many of the top professionals working today.

Over his career, Clarkson also has photographed several Super Bowls, nine Olympiads, and innumerable other events. However, he's convinced that the best pictures don't happen only at the big pro games. "There are so many sports photographers today that would give their left arm to be on the sidelines at the Super Bowl," he says. "Well, that won't necessarily ensure that there's going to be any great pictures that come from it."One of the workshops that Clarkson and his company stage every year is on sports photography. "You're going to get better pictures and going to learn more, by going to a sandlot baseball game or a high school basketball game, because you'll have access," he tells his participants, often young, early-career photographers.

Each year, PhotoMedia recognizes a person in the industry who has best demonstrated "exceptional artistic and business accomplishments, photographic passion, devotion to the industry, inspiration to colleagues and humanitarian achievements in the community." For his dedication to the above ideals and his commitment to photographic education through his workshops, PhotoMedia is proud to honor Rich Clarkson as our 2005 Photography Person of the Year.

Right place, right time

Born in Lawrence, Kan., in 1932, Clarkson recalls that his first passion was airplanes. At the age of 10, with a box camera borrowed from his mother, Clarkson took aerial photos from the passenger seat of a Piper Cub. He reproduced those pictures in a mimeographed aviation newsletter he published on an ongoing basis with a few like-minded friends. In an entrepreneurial effort extraordinary in one so young, Clarkson solicited editorial contributions from a "Who's Who" of the aviation industry, including World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker, at the time president of Eastern Airlines. He also met and interviewed Orville Wright. Clarkson kept the publication going for two and a half years, with some 40 subscribers. It was an endeavor that seemed to uncannily predict some of his ventures half a century later.

In high school, Clarkson's interest in photography grew, and he eventually became the school's in-demand photographer. Because the town was the home of the University of Kansas, the big events in Lawrence were college sports. "By the time I was a senior in high school," Clarkson says, "I was photographing the KU basketball games for the Kansas City Star, the Topeka Daily Capital and the Lawrence Journal-World." He continued as a stringer through his own years at KU, where he majored in journalism.

Although he says that he was terrible at sports himself, Clarkson was drawn to the spectacle of athletics. "It's one of the great places that you can photograph drama and see the human culture and people questing for excellence," he observes. "And, you know, it's a lot less fatal than covering wars."

In 1952, he asked Kansas coach Forrest C. "Phog" Allen if he could ride to away games on the Jayhawks bus, and Allen agreed. Soon, Clarkson was accompanying the players not only on the bus but on planes and trains, traveling and rooming like a member of the team.

As luck would have it, that year Kansas made it to the NCAA national championships (not yet known as the Final Four). In Seattle that spring, they bested St. John's to win it all. It was the school's first NCAA title, and Clarkson was there to capture the moment. Later that evening, as the other press photographers were busy developing their pictures under deadline, his was the lone camera around to record NCAA executive director Walter Byers presenting the trophy to Coach Allen, who kissed it in gratitude.

Clarkson discounts the chance aspects of such events. "As they say, you make your own luck," he observes laconically, in a voice that still reveals his heartland roots.

A different kind of picture

Although he undeniably has taken his share, Clarkson deflects attempts to distill in words what makes a great sports picture, pointing out that it's a multifaceted category. "Sports entails everything from portraiture, to reportage, to great action pictures, to very stylized approaches, to essays," he notes. "It's all different kinds of things. So there is no one thing that makes a great sports picture because there are 14 varieties of great sports pictures."

Over the years, Clarkson has proved to be a master of them all. In fact, it can be argued that he invented a few. In 1956, while still a student at the University of Kansas, Clarkson photographed the 7-foot-1 Wilt Chamberlain shooting, dunking, rebounding — every pose he could think of to visually convey the KU rookie's dominating height. Unsatisfied with the results, Clarkson finally sat Chamberlain in a folding chair, bending to tie his shoe.

Shot from a low angle, the portrait in chiaroscuro black-and-white revealed the future star's outsized proportions better than any action picture could. Clarkson hopefully mailed off a few prints to a new magazine he'd heard about. Sports Illustrated snapped them up, inaugurating a long and fruitful relationship.

A few years later, at the 1964 NCAA championship, Clarkson sold Sports Illustrated a photo that, in a way, helped modernize the technique and look of sports photography. Instead of strobes, he used a telephoto lens and Tri-X film pushed to 1200 to utilize the available light and capture UCLA's Walt Hazzard threading his way through a thicket of Duke defenders. The magazine chose the resulting image for its cover, Clarkson's first.

Although the approach would become common practice in time, Clarkson knew that he was onto something exciting. "No one was much doing that at the time. This was the kind of transition out of the Speed Graphic and Rolleiflex era into 35mm," he says. "Most everyone just kind of gave up on what was going on at the other end of the court."
Since then, Clarkson estimates that he's shot more than 50 Sports Illustrated covers, but has lost the exact count.

Then, there's the rarefied kind of sports picture that transcends the genre. For the 1966 Final Four, Clarkson captured a glimpse of college sports, and America, in transition. Number three Texas Western squared off against the top-ranked University of Kentucky Wildcats. The meeting was especially significant in that the Texas Western squad started five black players; the Wildcats, coached by Adolph Rupp, were strictly white. Texas Western triumphed that day, 72-65, but the image that's most remembered is not of the jubilant victors. Rather, it's Clarkson's stark tableau of the dejected Kentucky bench — players, cheerleaders and coaches — looking stunned in defeat that endures.

Knowing the story behind it, it's hard for a viewer not to read into the picture more than just the loss of a basketball championship. Clarkson has described the moment as "the basketball equivalent of Brown vs. Board of Education."

More than just sports

Impressive as his sports-related achievements are, Clarkson points out that there's much more. "Sports is one-twentieth of what I've done in my career," he explains. "It's what people know me more for, but that's not the main thing I've done in photography." He's equally proud of his work editing, managing and teaching. Clarkson has worked for the Denver Post and spent 23 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal managing the photography department, work that he found greatly satisfying. He also has freelanced steadily for Time, Life and other magazines. For seven years, he served on the adjunct faculty of the University of Kansas School of Journalism.

While managing the photo department at the Lawrence Journal-World, Clarkson hired a high school senior named Bill Snead as an assistant, in 1954. Snead started out by mixing chemicals in the lab, honing his craft under Clarkson's demanding tutelage.

"He was tough," Snead recalls. "A son-of-a-gun to work for. With Clarkson, you learned by watching him. He might tell you later, ‘You should've moved that light closer, or you could've tried this,' but he wouldn't tell you more than one time."

The two would work together for several years, moving on at the same time to the Topeka Capital-Journal, where Snead credits Clarkson for cultivating a photo team reckoned among the top 10 in the country. Snead's own career would later take him to the Washington Post, National Geographic and other postings. Now the senior editor back at the Journal-World, he is still in contact regularly with his mentor. "Anything that I've ever achieved," Snead says, "it all goes back to him."

National Geographic hired Clarkson in the mid-1980s as its director of photography. Among photo jobs, many consider this the world's sweetest plum, but Clarkson found himself bogged down with managerial duties and isolated from most hands-on involvement with picture-taking and photographers.

Then, in 1987, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Brian Lanker approached Clarkson with a compelling proposal: help him produce a series of photo portraits celebrating black American women — the influential, the famous and the unsung — each accompanied by a brief essay and biographical information.

Clarkson had worked with Lanker at the Topeka Capital-Journal and considers him "one of the genius photographers in America." He was delighted to collaborate, and set about securing funding and coordinating other resources.

The project, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America, blended history, art, literature and social commentary. "We conceived it at the very start as being an exhibition of pictures for major art museums, and not just a book," Clarkson remembers. "We had an amazing opening at the Corcoran [Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.], in which we had 72 of the 75 women in the book there for the opening. We had everyone from Odetta to Oprah. Everyone in Washington still talks about that opening."

"I Dream a World" hit a home run, spawning not one but two exhibits in Washington and two traveling versions that ran for six years. The book itself has gone through 17 printings, with sales of some 550,000 copies, making it one of the best-selling trade coffee table books ever.

The experience reinvigorated Clarkson. "Managing that whole project and making all of those things happen, I said, ‘Gee, I think I'll leave National Geographic to do that.'" Friends and colleagues were surprised, to say the least, but Clarkson's response was, "Well, would you like to sit at my desk for a week?" He was much happier to be working directly with pictures and photographers again.

At about the same time, the NCAA invited Clarkson to help produce a book and series of exhibitions on the Final Four. It was then that he began to realize the potential for a business producing high-quality photo books and related exhibits, and formed Rich Clarkson and Associates in Denver.

Now employing a staff of 10, the firm continues its book-packaging and publishing activities, and, among other clients, exclusively handles photography and publishing for the Colorado Rockies baseball team, the Denver Broncos football team and all of the NCAA's 93 national championship events.

Learning from the best

Clarkson also is the prime mover behind a series of prestigious photography workshops. The spring and fall Digital Photography at the Summit workshops in Jackson, Wyo., and the summer Sports Photography Workshop in Colorado Springs, Colo., harness the teaching expertise of the cream of modern photography. In addition to Clarkson, faculty have included Life and Sports Illustrated veteran Bill Eppridge, New York Times sports picture editor Brad Smith, International Wildlife Photographer of the Year Tom Mangelson, Time magazine picture editor MaryAnne Golon and former National Geographic editor-in-chief William L. Allen.

For working professionals and serious aspirants, the quality of instruction at the workshops is impossible to beat. More important, says Clarkson, is the opportunity to network. "These are the people who actually commission photography, who are looking for talent," he notes, and he's proud to describe a number of book contracts, exhibitions and assignments that were conceived and incubated at the workshops.

A further attraction at the workshops is the participation of sponsor representatives, including those from Nikon, Apple, Epson and Adobe, who offer technical advice and provide workshop students with the opportunity to try out their very latest equipment and software.

Peer review and critiques from the teaching teams offer participants valuable feedback. At the conclusion of each Spring Summit, too, a selection of student photos is printed, matted and framed, to be showcased at a public opening in one of the local galleries. "The work is always astounding," Clarkson says. "Just beautiful."

Recently, Clarkson also launched a pair of workshops, called Capture the Season, in the spring and fall. Conducted at and around the Four Seasons Resort Jackson Hole, these weeklong conclaves — designed for dedicated, and well-heeled, amateurs — are as much about cosseted relaxation as they are about photography, although the instruction and the digital equipment provided are nothing less than top-notch. Indeed, Clarkson notes, the very best teachers in the world eagerly vie for the chance to share their knowledge while roughing it at the Four Seasons.

More to come

An early adopter of digital technology, Clarkson nevertheless retains a loyalty to film. "There is no one lens, or piece of equipment, that's right for everything," he says. "For the past couple of years, I've probably used the digital Nikons more than any other piece of equipment. I have been using a D100, and have a D70 now, and got a new D2X," but he still occasionally reaches for his Leica or Hasselblad.

These days, pursuing his passion with the zeal and vigor of a man one-third his age, Rich Clarkson betrays no hint of intending to slow down. At a point in his career when one might reasonably sit back and take a deep breath, Clarkson's to-do list is jaw-dropping: new books, exhibits and other projects that incorporate photography in innovative ways. He describes each upcoming venture with such enthusiasm that you'd think it was his first big assignment.

Brian Lanker doesn't expect Clarkson to slow down. "I think it's his innate interest in storytelling. I don't think he'll ever really get tired of telling stories. He's always motivated by what's happening in the world and in the news, and I think that I've taken a little piece of that from him. He's continually stimulated, and he'll be going at it hammer and tongs till he's dead. It's not something that goes away; it's so innate and so important to him."Bill Snead puts it even more succinctly: "A simple way of saying it is that it's his life."

Mark W. Morris
Story Author: Mark W. Morris

Mark W. Morris is a writer and photographer living in Portland, Ore.

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