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Best of ASMP 2008

In his 50-year-career as a photographer, picture editor, National Geographic director of photography, as well as in other business ventures, Rich Clarkson has always been a mentor to others. His multi-faceted approach has served him well, keeping boredom at bay and adjusting to the trends and opportunities of a changing business climate. For the past two decades, Clarkson has offered guidance and inspiration in his representation of photographers, in book packaging projects and in his series of unique workshops. Clarkson builds an intense learning environment, designed to motivate, to expand one’s vision and to help move careers to the next level.

Rich Clarkson — Denver, CO

Web site:
Project: Ongoing work in photographer education and career development opportunities through workshops, book publishing and photographic assignment work.

© Rich Clarkson
All images in this article © Rich Clarkson

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

RC: Some 50 years, beginning as a newspaper photographer in Kansas.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

RC: I don’t remember my first year as a member, but probably around 40 years ago. [According to ASMP records, Rich joined ASMP in 1965. —Ed.]

© Rich Clarkson

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

RC: I’ve been known for sports photography (a Sports Illustrated contract photographer for many years) but working for newspapers for much of my career, did many other things. And for a period, I did a number of magazine assignments that were non-sports.

© Rich Clarkson

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?

RC: Today, it is probably the computer; but over the years, the Nikon cameras, which are constantly updated but feel the same, even use some of the same lenses I bought 30 years ago.

© Rich Clarkson

ASMP: What is unique about your style or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

RC: Probably understanding the use of the photographs and tailoring the shoot to the audience. And of course, the graphics and technical elements.

© Rich Clarkson

ASMP: Please describe your process and decision making in building your career and the components of your business.

RC: I have always been doing several things at the same time — sports photography, book packaging, teaching and mentoring. The variety not only keeps me intrigued (and from being bored), but adjusts to trends and business opportunities as our photographic and business environment changes.

© Rich Clarkson

ASMP: In addition to a successful career as a sports photographer, you were formerly the director of photography and senior assistant editor for National Geographic magazine. Please talk about your transition from photographer to editor/photo director, the insights this provided and the impact this transition had on your career and business.

RC: My first job as a newspaper photographer led me to get very involved in the editing and use of my pictures. So from the outset, I have always had as much interest and concern in editing as in producing pictures. And I have always been intrigued by the innovative and great work of other photographers and in editing, I get to work with other very talented people — many more talented than myself.

© Rich Clarkson

ASMP: You are also involved in many different photo workshops/education programs that you have developed over more than 20 years. What was your initial impetus for organizing photography workshops?

RC: When I was a teenager first producing pictures, I was influenced and helped by other very good professional and photojournalistic photographers and saw how much value came of sharing. And quickly, you learn that by teaching, you learn yourself. And then there is the fun of discovery — discovery of other new and very talented people who often don’t know how good they are, or can be. (Then there is the other side of that coin… )

© Rich Clarkson

ASMP: Has your view of photography workshops evolved over time?

RC: Our workshops have as a base the technique and technology — now digital. But what we really want to teach is creativity and originality. There is a multitude of workshops today that, often with one photographer/teacher, takes the participants in one direction, often narrow. My philosophy of workshops is team teaching with eight or more instructors who represent a variety of interests and styles. For there is no one right way, and our students are presented with many points of view from which to develop their own, or to hone their own talent. I feel very strongly about a broad base of offerings. And then, I also feel the entire week’s experience is important, which is why we do several workshops in a beautiful museum in Jackson Hole, WY which itself is an inspirational place. The entire experience is important. For our workshop in sports photography, we do that at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and that elevates the experience for all the students.

© Rich Clarkson

ASMP: You now represent a group of sports photographers. How do you select the photographers you work with, and what attributes (in addition to great photography) do you feel are most important for a photographer seeking to work with you?

RC: For my entire career, I have hired people largely based on their personality, their focus on a career, their being a highly motivated but highly ethical person. As I have said for years, we can teach someone to make pictures; I can’t teach them to be sharp. And over the years, I have hired either right out of college or within a year or so of that time photographers Chris Johns, David Alan Harvey, Jim Richardson, Brian Lanker, Mark Godfrey, Sarah Leen, George Olson, Anthony Suau, among many. Today, the sports assignments we handle, which is only a part of our projects, are pretty much young freelancers doing a one- or two-day assignment, which is very different from hiring a fulltime photographer. And then trying to move their careers forward.

© Rich Clarkson

ASMP: Your company produces and promotes major book projects. How did you first become interested in book publishing, and what special expertise or services do you offer that sets you apart from other photo book publishers?

RC: My first book was one on college football for which I spent an entire autumn at the University of Oklahoma with total access. It was a project I wanted to do and worked with a writer/editor from LIFE magazine, Bill Bruns. To get it published, I finally interested a yearbook manufacturer, for I knew few major book publishers and none seemed interested. It turned out well and the book sold out a significant number.

Today, our books are part of a comprehensive project that often includes an exhibition, magazine excerpts, television and an Internet presence. By doing all these elements at the same time, each promotes the others and you work on making two and two add up to five.

© Rich Clarkson

ASMP: Although your company is strongly focused on sports photography, you were recently involved with an acclaimed book project on Arlington National Cemetery. Are there specific types/subjects of photo books that you are most interested in producing? Are there any particular topics for photography books that you feel are underrepresented or have not yet been published?

RC: There are so many books out there today, few of which are highly successful; the topic is key to success. When Brian Lanker came to me with his idea of doing a book on America’s great black women, I Dream A World, it was one I knew (with Brian’s great talent) was going to work. I essentially left the director of photography’s post at the National Geographic to help manage and package that project. Great magazines, great motion pictures, great newspapers and great books are all the genesis of a great idea and often, a great editor/producer — and they cut new ground. Like pornography, I can’t define it but I can tell you when I see it. Product research and focus groups tell you about the past. They give you spinoffs from past successes, which eventually run out of steam. New ideas, with great and careful attention to timing, are the fuel for new successes.

© Rich Clarkson

ASMP: What new technologies are you using as part of your publishing and marketing efforts, and how are they positively impacting photographers?

RC: I would guess that more of those ideas come from the originality of the work of photographers. We have not packaged any of his books, but he is a regular at our workshops, but no one has cut more new ground nor reinvented himself as much as James Balog. And I know of few photographers who, as they near retirement, are producing the best work of their careers, as does William Albert Allard. Their work and ideas define how the publishing and ancillary projects should move forward. But always, timing in publishing is the huge variable that often is overlooked.

© Rich Clarkson

ASMP: Your company is involved in many sponsorships and partnerships with other companies and organizations. What factors do you weigh when making a decision on partnering with another organization?

RC: We want to partner with an organization that, underneath it all, wants to sell product and make money. But I look very carefully at their other motives and, if they are really in support of high level photography and great talent, then I am happy to work with them.

Kodak used to be highly supportive of professional photography. Today, there are companies and products that didn’t exist ten years ago such as Epson — where their professional impetus was led by an excellent photographer himself, Dan Steinhardt. When Dan went from Kodak to this new company, this said something to many in the industry about how they were going to function in the professional world. But over many years, Nikon has been the industry’s greatest supporter of organizations, education, individuals, projects — and quality always. They are unique, going all the way back to the Ehrenreichs. And today, quality people.

© Rich Clarkson

ASMP: What are the benefits of sponsorships to your company and to the photographers you represent?

RC: For us, the sponsorships enable us to do things at a higher level than traditional publishing, exhibiting and teaching can support alone. And often times, who you partner with helps define who you are.

© Rich Clarkson

ASMP: What limits do you impose on a partner’s involvement or control of your projects? What level of sponsor involvement would be unacceptable to you?

RC: Our sponsors have no voice in what we do, other than to suggest individuals and projects we may wish to examine and involve. And these suggestions have led us to some fine new talents. I feel we have true partnerships with our sponsors and they ask virtually nothing of us.

© Rich Clarkson

ASMP: Given your experience in this area, do you have any advice for photographers interested in securing corporate or manufacturer sponsorship for their work?

RC: There are no secrets, other than personal contact develops trust and, hopefully, satisfaction on both sides.

© Rich Clarkson

ASMP: What are the specific aspects of technology now under development that you feel photographers should be attentive to for the future?

RC: Digital changed everything, much for the better. It is easy to get caught up in the technology and its almost daily changes. Sometimes, better to sit back and use last year’s new technology well and keep your feet on the ground before chasing after the latest new development or product. Who knows, perhaps a year from now, today’s latest lens or camera will already be surpassed.

© Rich Clarkson

ASMP: Are you still actively shooting yourself? Given all the other projects you are involved in, do you have a specific strategy for allotting yourself time to photograph?

RC: I still photograph from time to time and to get it into my schedule, I usually zero in on some of our sports work. This past April, I photographed my 53rd NCAA basketball championship, the Final Four. It is still fun and though not a photographic masterpiece, I did nail the picture of the game. Significance is still important.

© Rich Clarkson

ASMP: What do you consider to be the one most important business decision that you have made in your career?

RC: To never make a decision based on business.

Gut instincts, the right timing, something that feels right and seems to be relevant to the future — all things that have been important to me. For one move, leaving the National Geographic Society director of photography post was probably my best move, for in that job, I was captive to tradition. Its editor, Bill Garrett, was the best editor I ever worked for — but he eventually was forced to leave as he tried to bring too much change too fast. The atmosphere at the Geographic today is vastly different and now, it is a place where originality and change is welcomed. Well … most of the time.