By Jim Colton
Jim Colton:You've had a remarkable career in photojournalism. Can you tell our readers how you first got interested in photography? Where did you get your first break?
Rich Clarkson: As a teenager in Kansas, I started publishing a mimeographed bi-monthly aviation newspaper which I did for a year and a half. When in high school, I began taking pictures for the school paper and yearbook. By the time I was a senior, I was very much into photography and in a small town there are two newsworthy things to photograph other than yearbook pictures…car accidents and sports. And in a college town, sports was always big and thus, I was drawn to KU athletics.
But I was always interested in everything else for subject matter and in trying to insure my pictures were used well, I decided that editing was as important as photographing. I seemed to keep running into breaks, but one was how the Kansas City press photographers "adopted" me and took me in on many of their activities. They included Bill Straeter of the AP, Eddie Hoffman of Acme, Sol Studna and Brooks Crummitt of the Kansas City Star. Eddie Hoffman took me along to my first NPPA convention, in Washington DC, and then to the first Rochester Conference (hosted by Kodak) where I met other young photographers my same age. It was there that I met another young photographer who immediately and competitively showed me how much further advanced he was than myself. His name was Eddie Adams.
Another "break," was when I received a phone call from an icon of photojournalism who I had never met at the time…Cliff Edom at Missouri. He asked me to join the faculty of the Missouri Workshop. (I thought he was calling to convince me to attend as a student). In my opinion, Cliff was the greatest catalyst in American photojournalism. Here was a university professor whose cataracts virtually prevented him from seeing the picture yet attracted the best people in the profession to Missouri and the Missouri Workshops. He and his wife Vi brought the best people together and how I got included befuddled me but there I was. This is where I met Bill Garrett and Bob Gilka and Gordon Parks and Earl Seubert and Angus McDougall and Chuck Scott and Dean Conger and everyone else who were the greats of the profession at the time….and since.
JC: After the Topeka Capital Journal, the Denver Post and the National Geographic, three careers in itself, tell us what it was like to "give birth" to your new baby, NCAA Photos and how has it grown since it was first created?
RC: I had been doing a lot of the NCAA championships for SI and working with them I got to know Walter Byers, who "invented" the NCAA. We worked together on the first book about the Final Four (before it was called Final Four) entitled, "The Classic." It was about that time that Walter was retiring so I suggested we put something together that enabled all the NCAA championships to be photographed, for their archives, their publications, and ultimately for distribution and/or sale to the media. We (Rich Clarkson & Associates) have expanded that original concept and continue to manage that program which entails our staff photographing some of the games and hiring freelancers across the country for others. Their biggest championship is the Final Four and this year, we will have seven people there photographing and editing.
One of things I have felt strongly about is, while we have a responsibility to the NCAA to produce high quality documentation and images, that we also champion other photographers. There was a point several years ago when the demand for credentials was so high, that the student photographers from the teams were being excluded in favor of the major newspapers, wires and magazines. I argued that this is an event for student athletes and should be for student journalists as well. It took a year but we got that done for both student writers and photographers. Today, we are still in an advisory position on credentialing and it is interesting as today's technology opens doors to photojournalists beyond the major organizations (AP, New York Times, local dailies, etc.) I have tried to suggest in their credentialing process (they include) some new organizations and individuals who are significant players in the digital arena.
JC: I understand that book publishing has also been a major part of your illustrious career. Can you talk a little about that, and specifically the book I Dream a World and the work of the very talented Brian Lanker, who we lost in 2011?
RC: On I Dream a World, Lanker became one of my best friends and over Christmas years ago, he told me of his plans to embark on a book about America's great black women. That rang such an instant bell in my mind that I accepted Brian's request to manage the project. I cornered Ray Demoulin at Kodak (who was supporting all kind of great projects at the zenith of the great Kodak days) and raised the initial funds. Before the project was over, Kodak had about $1 million in it…quite a bit of money 25 years ago. It became obvious to me I couldn't do this very well on the side while at National Geographic (where I was director of photography at the time) so I resigned that position to take on I Dream A World and start my own little company to do so (Rich Clarkson & Associates). That led to other projects, the founding of NCAA Photos and a series of high level workshops…which was pretty much a spin off from all the days I attended the NPPA's Flying Short Course every fall.
JC: You have also created extremely valuable workshops called the Summit Series featuring photojournalism, sports and adventure photography where some of the biggest names in the industry attend as faculty. After 20 some years, how is it going?
RC: The workshops are doing fine and we have no trouble landing the top talents among photographers and editors. I actually get contacted every year by people "volunteering" to join the faculty. I don't tell them but landing on our faculty each year was often a matter of the recruiting of speakers I did while I was on the Flying Short Course. I never accepted anyone who campaigned to be on the program. My "choices" were often those who I had to twist their arms to get from their busy schedules. As the years have gone by, I no longer have to arm twist. Our faculty include those looking for new talent, are all good teachers and who understand a workshop is absolutely the best place to find emerging photographers. You see not only their portfolio but you also see how they work during the week.
And many of the attendees at our workshops understand they could never get an appointment with one of those editors in Washington or New York but have them for a week at the workshop….even if it’s only at the bar at night. And we have our workshops at one of the neatest places in the country…with great restaurants. And thus, the faculty dines on all the workshop profits.
JC: I see you have also just finished another exhibition and book called National Geographic Greatest Photographs of the American West. Can you tell us a little about that?
RC: One of our workshops, "Photography at the Summit" is done each year at the foot of the Grand Tetons in Jackson Hole where the National Museum of Wildlife Art is located. We began our workshops there as the host site in a beautiful and perfect location complete with the museum that includes photography, classrooms, a fine auditorium for evening presentation and an on-site restaurant. Two years ago, their new director, Jim McNutt, came to me during the workshop with the news that one of their benefactors was going to provide money for an exhibit which he envisioned opening on the same day at all eight museums across the country who are members of the Museums West group. That was intriguing for nothing like that has even been done before. So Jim asked what we could do for the content. I said, let me make a call.
I called Chris Johns, the Editor at the National Geographic asking, “will you give us access to all the Geographic archives for "The Great Photographs of the American West." “ Their archives, which I knew well, go all the way back to William Henry Jackson to Ansel Adams to William Albert Allard today, as the definitive collection in America. Without hesitation, Chris said yes. And Jim closed the deal for substantial funding from the Mays Family Foundation from Texas. And we began the two year project of curating, designing and publishing with the great assistance of the talented designer, Kate Glassner Brainerd, who has been my go-to design partner for 25 years.
JC: Lastly, do you have any parting words for our readers?
RC: What I tell all aspiring photographers is: Observe…and shut up! You can't listen when you're talking. Don't hesitate to ask the veterans for their help. Just not during play though.
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