In mid-September with the aspen trees exploding in vivid fall yellow, the legendary photographer, editor and educator Rich Clarkson, 86, triumphantly rejoined the faculty and participants of the 2018 Summit Photography Workshop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
When he stood before the group, there was a thunderous explosion of applause and whoops of joy from the assembled faculty, staff and photographers. He was back in the warm embrace of his community, which included many who owe their long and storied photo careers to his vision: National Geographic legends William Albert “Bill” Allard, Jim Richardson and Jodi Cobb; sports-photo stars Dave Black and John McDonough; workshop leader Chris Steppig; wildlife and conservation photographers Michael Forsberg, Morgan Heim and Melissa Groo; and Nikon Ambassador Joey Terrill.
Clarkson, the only child of parents who were themselves only children, has no living blood family members, but he has developed and supported a photo family as devoted to him as he has been to the photojournalism industry. As our mentors advance in age, it is vital for our community to pay tribute to them, offer support and share stories of what the business is like now.
Clarkson, although born in Oklahoma City, was a lifelong son of Kansas, where his parents moved when he was 3-years-old. He grew up in Lawrence and graduated from the University of Kansas in 1956. Only a few years later as director of photography at The Topeka Capital-Journal, he hired a world-class group of young photographers that by 1960 included Bill Snead and Perry Riddle and his first summer intern, Gary Settle. He went on to hire Pulitzer Prize winner Brian Lanker, Magnum member David Alan Harvey, The Washington Post’s Susan Biddle and, in 1971, National Geographic’s Richardson, who stayed 11 years, longer than any other photographer before him. Former National Geographic Editor-in-Chief Chris Johns was also a Clarkson hire. His photo team was affectionately referred to then as the “Kansas Photo Mafia.”
“Rich was a great photo editor who strictly enforced the idea that photographers had to think like editors,” said Richardson, “and he created an environment where they could do that.” Clarkson published five picture pages per week at the daily newspaper. The photographers had to come up with their own story ideas, shoot and edit the stories, write headlines, captions and lay out the pages. “Once all of that was completed, they were required to then sell the stories – directly to him,” Richardson said. “He was very tough and never tolerated any nonsense or alternatively anything artsy-fartsy or overly stylized. He believed that photographs had to have information, had to show things and that each frame had an important job to do. He created a powerful generation of successful storytelling photojournalists who went on to be industry leaders themselves. He is the single most influential strand of DNA in modern photojournalism. Take a look at his ‘family’ tree.”
Clarkson eventually left Topeka to establish a decades-long relationship with Sports Illustrated, where he contributed both as a photographer and a consultant. He photographed the NCAA championships for 60 years (see previous News Photographer story). Photographer Dave Black, who met Rich in the mid-1980s at a sports photo workshop, said, “Rich has a staggeringly long line of people whose lives and careers he has touched. He could make you believe that you were not alone. Rich made photographers believe that they could do something great and that they had an obligation to make a difference.” John McDonough, a longtime staffer at Sports Illustrated, said: “For me, Rich is a godfather of modern photojournalism.”
Clarkson was well-known for his mercurial personality and his complete intolerance for anything short of excellence. “Even when he was very hard on you, it was for a reason. He wanted you to confront your own insecurities and to help you grow. There is really no one else quite like him, and certainly there is no one like him operating on a national level in photography now,” McDonough said.