PDNEDU

Photo Gigs: Rich Clarkson - Founder and Director of Clarkson Creative

Interviewed by Jill Waterman


© RICH CLARKSON/CLARKSON CREATIVE
Patrick Ewing of Georgetown goes up for a dunk during the Final Four Men’s Basketball Semifinal held at the Kingdome in Seattle, Washington. Georgetown defeated Kentucky 53–40 to advance to the championship game. 


PDNedu: What was your earliest photo industry work experience?

Rich Clarkson: While in college I was a staff photographer for the town daily, the Lawrence Journal-World in Lawrence, Kansas.

PDNedu: How did you make your first transition from photographer to a director of photography and what would you say was your most important attribute in assuming that role?
RC: Following graduation and a stint in the Air Force as a public information officer, I took the job as chief photographer at the Topeka Capital-Journal. That turned into the director of photography shortly after, as I went beyond running the small photo staff and into affecting and influencing the use of pictures on the then two daily newspapers. I guess the main attribute was not so much in managing schedules, budgets and the staff, but in convincing many picture-using department editors to use photographs well.

PDNedu: As a director of photography, how do you go about determining which photographer to assign a given story?
RC: There is no single one way, for you are weighing talents in certain areas, experience (or lack thereof) and finally—and often the only choice—who is available on the schedule.

PDNedu: You worked in the newspaper industry for much of your early career, which was very different than it is today. Given your history in this field and the way your own career has transitioned, what is your opinion about the future of newspaper photojournalism?
RC: Newspaper photojournalism today has come to a point at most places where pictures are as important as text in functioning not only for content but as headlines—headlines that attract the reader to a certain story. The future is solid (and expanding in places) for, despite the delivery method (print or online), we live in a visual arena where pictures (still and motion) are the first-read on a particular subject.

PDNedu: What is your advice for those who wish to pursue newspaper photojournalism in the current marketplace/media environment?  
RC: Think of yourself first as a content deliverer and what is the right combination of pictures and words for the particular subject/story.  Then insure yourself of a broad liberal arts background so you are prepared to tackle varying subjects.

PDNedu: Based on your experience as a photo book publisher/packager, do you have any pet peeves and/or advice about how photographers present their work as book dummies or in portfolio reviews?  
RC: First, understand the purpose of your book. Is it to present a subject or is it to promote yourself as a photographer—a sales piece as it were. I see so many photographer-produced books that need the hand of an experienced editor for a variety of reasons—not the least of which is an understanding of why words are important, and to use those words well in support of the pictures—and the story-telling.

PDNedu: According to your Web site, I Dream A World, the book you produced with Brian Lanker, became the best selling photography book of all time. Please talk about the elements that made this book so successful.
RC: Well, first there were Brian’s exceptional pictures that sprang from his vision of the project. Secondly, and tremendously important, was the subject—America’s greatest black women—which was a group that forged their way through two historic movements—the women’s movement and the black civil rights thrust.

PDNedu: If this book were being published today, is there anything you’d want to do differently to achieve a similar (if not larger) level of recognition and success?
RC: Given its success and the uniqueness of Brian’s work, no.

PDNedu: What was the genesis of forming Rich Clarkson and Associates (now Clarkson Creative) and who were your first clients?
RC: The NCAA asked me to produce a book on their basketball tournament, the Final Four. My departure as DOP at National Geographic mystified many, for it was perceived as the ultimate job in photojournalism. Only it was all administrative and rarely touched on using photographs. I started my company in order to return to the editing and publishing (along with exhibitions, magazine offshoots). And to began photographing again—which started with the NCAA.

PDNedu: What, if any, changes did you make to your company and/or services when recently changing the name from Rich Clarkson and Associates to Clarkson Creative?
RC: We are now a full-service group with the emphasis on creativity and most of our projects have several methods for content display. And to that we added our four annual workshops. Those workshops all entail team-teaching and our faculty (usually 8 to 10 each) includes top photographers, editors and educators. No other workshops have the cast of important characters that ours do. Beyond that—this gives me a chance to get together with top leaders (and friends) with a purpose other than a reunion. And each year we add new and developing young photographers to our faculty who are significant professionals and who also have the disposition (and effectiveness) to be great and sharing teachers.

PDNedu: Shooting still images of sports action is undoubtedly a very challenging task. Shooting video of sports action must be equally challenging if not more so. Based on your long background in sports please give us your insights on the most important considerations for getting the best from each medium.
RC: First of all, they are totally different mediums. It is technically possible to pull a high quality still image from a Nikon video take, but trying to tell the story most effectively in each medium takes a different approach. And the first thing a still photographer faces when doing the first video issound! It is a vital part of the story-telling and effectiveness.

PDNedu: Please talk about the issue of access to sports subject matter and whether/how this has changed over time. Do you have any tips or shortcuts for gaining access to popular events or exclusive subjects?
RC: What I have always done in sports is to produce projects with some depth which means gaining access. This involves convincing the subject, either in advance or on the spot, that you are trustworthy enough to handle that access.

PDNedu: You’ve photographed countless championship games and at the Olympics in Mexico City (1972) and Seoul, South Korea (1988), Los Angeles, Montreal and Calgary. Do you find there to be any difference between photographing an Olympic or championship athlete, who has great pressure to be at the top of his or her game, and an ordinary individual athlete who is simply focused on playing their best, outside of the limelight?
RC: By the time most athletes get to the Olympics, they are used to the pressures. Knowing them (and having photographed them) in advance often results in the cooperation you need to do special things with the superstars at the games.

PDNedu: Do you find there to be any differences in photographing professional vs non professional athletes?
RC: Some pros are difficult (giving you limited time) but most are about the same. If you are professional, a good person and respect their needs, most of them go along with you fine.

PDNedu: Clarkson Creative currently has an all-male staff. Do you find there to be any advantages to this staff roster over a company that also includes female staff members?
RC: We have had women on staff in the past and have just added another woman to the staff. This is no intent to limit our group, it's just how things fell into place.

PDNedu: Based on your experience working with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) do you have any insights or advice for sports photographers who work full-time within a school context?
RC:  Many schools now employ full-time photographers in the athletics department and each school may have unique and different needs. They start with content for Web sites, game programs and press kits, but most schools have moved quickly into displays of photographs in arenas and offices. There are a variety of additional uses in which schools have used such photographs as well.

PDNedu: Please tell us about NCAA photos. How did your relationship with the NCAA develop? How many photographers are generally commissioned to document the championships?
RC: This developed from that first Final Four to which we added the College World Series (baseball) and Track & Field—and within a year, I suggested we create “NCAA Photos” which now does all 90 championships.

PDNedu: Can you provide any insights into how sports images such as the NCAA collection are cleared for commercial usage?
RC: Use of a student athlete’s image while in school should fall under the scholarship agreement, although the Bannon case will test that. For commercial use, particularly after graduation, we tell (and include in our signed agreement) all clients who license rights to a picture that it’s their obligation to get a release or licensing agreement from the athlete.

PDNedu: You also run Photography at the Summit, workshops in sports and adventure photography. How long have these workshops been in operation, what is the general student demographic and what assets or advantages do students come away with after attending?
RC: The attendees range from students (some on scholarships) to emerging professionals to attorneys, dentists, airline captains, realtors—most of whom had intended on a career in photography only to find other higher-paying professional jobs early on. But they always wanted to be photographers and many do it on the side with another career. The experience level is all over the place but the common denominator is that most of the participants are serious about their photography—and want to “move to the next level” as they often say.

PDNedu: Please talk about your relationship with Nikon. How long have you been associated with the brand and how did this relationship come about?
RC: We’ve had Nikon as a workshop sponsor for more than 25 years and they are great to work with—asking for very little, only to be present. And they provide some useful services—such as cleaning, adjusting and repairing cameras on-site in addition to loaning cameras, lenses and flash units to the students. This has happened through a succession of marketing and professional services directors over the years but in recent years, Bill Pekala who has just retired, and now, Mark Suban. I have never known a company who does more to support professional photographers in all the right ways.

PDNedu: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your experience running a creative agency that you weren’t aware of from your earlier photo career (and/or weren’t taught in school), but should have been? 
RC: To waste no time sending the bill. The biggest companies take the longest to pay . . .

PDNedu: Your career trajectory has allowed you to work on the bleeding edge of technology and keep up with the newest technological developments. What’s the latest tool, innovation or industry development that you’ve seen, heard of or read about that you’re most excited about?
RC: To see how drones can be used—with federal regulation on the horizon.

PDNedu: How do you balance time for your own photography with your other photo industry responsibilities? Do you have any insights for budding photographers in how to maintain a work/life balance? 
RC: To always have time for the late afternoon martini . . .

PDNedu: Do you have any final, insider tips about a career in the photo industry that you’d like to share with students or emerging photographers?

RC: This will be self-serving—but workshops afford not just experience but most importantly, the kind of networking (and friends) hard to create in any other way. At least half of the people I’ve hired in my entire career I first met at a workshop—for at a workshop, you show not just your portfolio (which can include a lot of lucky pictures that the instructor will note) but you are showing how you think, work and produce in real time. If you you’re ready to move up, this can be the best opportunity. For in the end, as I often say, It’s not the portfolio, it’s the person . . . 

Step Behind the Scenes

For more about Rich Clarkson's Workshops at the Summit and other educational programs, visit PDNedu’s digital edition here.

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