Mexico City, 1968 Olympics

© Rich Clarkson, Mexico City, 1968 Olympics.

At age 78 and still going strong, Rich Clarkson has been a force in photography since the 1950s. Always a stickler for excellence, he was known as a tough boss to work for but one who would make you a better photojournalist. A book produced for a July 2010 reunion of 34 of his photographers at the Topeka Capital- Journal says it best:

Rich Clarkson touched our minds, hearts and souls in ways that nobody else ever did. Fear became respect. Respect became admiration. Admiration became friendship. Friendship became love. We all owe Rich more than we can tell or show — except by what we’ve done after we left the Topeka Capital-Journal.

The long list of legendary photographers who worked for Clarkson includes Susan Biddle, Brian Lanker, David Alan Harvey, Rod Hanna, Chris Johns, Sarah Leen, Jim Richardson, Gary Settle, Bill Snead and many more.

Clarkson’s career has included stints as director of photography not only at the Topeka Capital-Journal, but also at the Denver Post and National Geographic. He served as president of the National Press Photographers Association. He photographed 40-odd covers for Sports Illustrated, and his photos made the front of the Wheaties box twice. He has covered sports all over the world and eight Olympics, including Munich in 1972 when terrorists took Israeli athletes hostage. His list of books and exhibitions can be found on his website, www.richclarkson.com.

Ken Lassiter: How do you describe yourself? Photographer? Journalist? Publisher? Promoter? Producer? Teacher? Or just a rabid sports fan?
Rich Clarkson: All of the above!

KL: Which is the most fun?
RC: The most fun is to do more than one thing with a project. I like to think in a broad way, to reach out and create for multiple audiences and lead them to places where they might not otherwise go. Some stories are better presented as a book or on a museum wall. Some are better as a magazine story or online. Most of my career has been spent figuring out the best way to tell a story, and oftentimes, it is several ways at once.

KL: Where were you born?
RC: Oklahoma City, but my parents moved to Lawrence, Kansas when I was three years old.

KL: What was your life like as a kid?
RC: We had an apartment in the building where my grandmother ran the leading restaurant in Lawrence. People came from as far away as Kansas City just to have dinner. I worked in the restaurant, first as a busboy, later as a waiter. My mother and grandmother taught me the value of excellence. My mother was a music teacher and a true perfectionist. When she wrote something, every word had to be exactly right. I had to attend all kinds of music and museum events, which gave me a broad interest in the arts and history.

KL: When did you first become interested in photography?
RC: That was in high school. I grew up wanting to be a pilot. When I was in the sixth grade, I started a mimeographed newspaper about aviation. I contacted all the manufacturers — Northrop, Douglas, Boeing and all the airlines — and asked for their news releases. I also asked the heads of the companies to write stories. Jack Northrop, W. A. Patterson of United Airlines, Donald Douglas and Eddie Rickenbacker all sent stories, though I’m sure their public relations departments wrote them.

KL: I understand your first camera was an Argus C3.
RC: I borrowed that Argus C3 from my father, and I still have it. The first camera I owned was an Ansco Speedex medium format. I used it in high school to make all the usual photographs. The Lawrence Daily Journal-World paid me 75 cents for my first published picture, of the high school’s first driver education car. I totaled up what I had spent for film, prints and flash bulbs and figured I had already lost money as a photographer!

I did a lot of freelance photography. I was a senior in high school when I started photographing the Kansas basketball games. At half time, I ran home to develop the film and make prints. Then I went to the bus station and sent prints on the nine o’clock bus to The Kansas City Star, Associated Press, Acme Telephoto and the Topeka Daily Capitol. Usually I got back in time to photograph the end of the game.

More of this article can be read in the Winter 2011 issue.