Photographs by former staff members help tell the story of the visionary editor who inspired them

The Register-Guard

Rich Clarkson

Brian Lanker embraces his Kansas editor and mentor, Rich Clarkson, at a surprise party hosted by Lanker in Eugene. Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey records the scene. (Paul Carter/The Register-Guard)

EUGENE, Ore. — “The worst staff ever” got back together one more time this week for a reunion in Eugene to celebrate the extraordinary editor who hired them all a generation ago in Topeka, Kan., and then sent them far and wide to make their mark on photojournalism.

When the guest of honor — former Topeka Capital-Journal director of photography Rich Clarkson — walked into the surprise party in Eugene Monday night, the scene resembled a chaotic presidential photo op.

Clarkson, now a slender, white-haired man of 77, may or may not have been fully surprised. “You almost kept it a secret,” he growled, his face alternating between shock and awe as he was surrounded in the foyer by a throng of gray-haired photographers, former employees all, madly clicking and videoing away. “Go to hell!”

Any other response would have been completely out of character. Running the Topeka photo department, Clarkson snarled as much as he smiled. “You’re the worst staff I ever had!” was practically a motto. Clarkson yelled and threw things. He pushed and bullied. He tore up photographs and hurled them at cowed photographers. And he made his people excel.

“He changed our lives,” said Chris Johns, who started his career as an intern working for Clarkson in Kansas. “He just had this profound impact on our lives. And it wasn’t just photography. It was how you dealt with adversity. It’s how you commit yourself to excellence.”

Johns, who was at the party, is now editor-in-chief of National Geographic magazine. “His philosophy was, there was just no excuse for mediocrity. That extended to everything you did, all the time. I would not be editor of National Geographic had I not worked for Rich. That’s an absolute.”

The party was hosted at the south Eugene home of Brian Lanker, a Clarkson alum who went on from Kansas to run the photo department at The Register-Guard in 1974, later becoming a nationally known freelance photographer.

He is one of four Clarkson alums to win the Pulitzer Prize; he later used Clarkson-style intensity to push The Register-Guard to become a leader in the use of photography during the late 1970s.

Lanker spent a year planning the party with an obsessive attention to detail that would make his former boss proud.

The 60 or so guests wore laminated press cards with ID photos of themselves from Topeka days (they had lots more hair then). The napkins were printed with the names of favored Topeka newspaper bars. Lanker even went so far as to stage a fake baby shower (think balloons on the mailbox) at an empty house across the street so there would be an ostensible reason for all the cars parked nearby when Clarkson arrived, brought to the house on a pretext by Johns.

Lanker and Carl Davaz, another Clarkson alum who is now Deputy Managing Editor of The Register-Guard, also assembled a privately published 250-page coffee table book of photos by the reunion guests. The book was presented to Clarkson at a brunch on Tuesday at King Estates Winery outside Eugene.

“Everybody’s been signing everyone else’s books the last two hours,” said a clearly touched Clarkson after the brunch. “Actually it’s a very good book. It’s an amazing set of pictures which kind of spans an interesting time in American photojournalism.”

In fact, flipping through the pages is like a tour through the best newspaper and magazine journalism of the 1960s and ’70s: There are pictures of John and Bobby Kennedy and of Bill Clinton, gritty shots of soldiers in Vietnam, sparkling scenes from the Colorado Rockies and portraits of heart-rending despair in the Third World.

“He made me a better storyteller,” explains Susan Biddle, who eventually went on from her part-time job in Kansas to become a staff photographer at the Washington Post. When Clarkson sent her out one day to photograph a Count Basie concert, for example, he insisted that she not simply bring back standard performance shots. “You have to get something more,” he told her.

Feeling a bit intimidated, Biddle went to an afternoon rehearsal and shyly asked the jazzman if it would be possible to photograph him somewhere away from the stage. “You mean, you want to come to my pad?” Basie quipped.

Biddle shot informal portraits of Basie in his hotel room. “Rich demanded that you always take that extra step,” she said. “He was demanding. But he was fair.”

At the party Monday, once Clarkson had finally made it through the throng of well-wishers around the front door, he got himself settled in with a drink on the patio. There the stories flew in a nostalgic blur, the reminiscences of high-energy men, and a few women, who worked hard and played hard together: There was this incident with the phone pole, and the tale of that photographer who was arrested, and the time a photographer inadvertently left his two-way radio transmitting while he complained about Clarkson and — oops — Clarkson was listening in.

Then, back at the party, Clarkson got a video phone call, via Skype, from another celebrity alum.

Susan Ford — the daughter of former president Gerald Ford — was an intern at the Topeka paper the same summer Johns started out there. (Johns is still referred to as “the other intern.”) After a career as a photojournalist, she now lives in Tulsa and is chairman of the board of the Betty Ford Center.

“Oh my God! Your voice hasn’t changed a bit,” Ford said on the video link. “Are you still as nasty and mean as ever?”

Clarkson started work at the Capital-Journal in 1957, in a day when newspapers were gray masses of type designed by news editors, and looked like it. He was among the first newspapermen to use photography as an equal alongside reporters’ stories, running photos big and splashy.

He photographed for his high school newspaper in Lawrence before studying journalism at the University of Kansas; there he went with the basketball team on road trips, sometimes rooming with “a guy named Dean Smith.” Yes, the legendary coach.

Clarkson doesn’t know where his determination comes from. “It seemed like the thing to do at the time,” he said. “My mother was a talented musician and was very precise about how she did everything. But that didn’t really have much to do with photojournalism.”

He became a newsroom innovator, installing two-way radios and police scanners in his photographers’ cars. He expected photographers to know as much, or more, about the stories they covered as the reporters did. And he preached content over form.

“He focused completely on content,” said David Alan Harvey, a Clarkson alum who now works as a member of the Magnum Photo agency after eight years as a staff member at Geographic. “He assumed we had the visual acuity. But the photo had to mean something.”

Clarkson was named by American Photo magazine as one of the 50 most influential individuals in American photography. His former staffers became Wall Street Journal reporters and official White House photographers. Six won National Newspaper Photographer of the Year awards. George Olson, who showed up for the party lugging an old Leica M-2 he bought new when he was in high school, went on to become director of photography for Sunset magazine.

Clarkson’s career has also included stints as director of photography and senior assistant editor of National Geographic, as assistant managing editor of The Denver Post, and as a contributing photographer to Sports Illustrated. Today his Denver company, Rich Clarkson and Associates, does contract sports photography for clients such as the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Colorado Rockies baseball team.

His company is working on a book, funded by Phil Knight, about Oregon track and field and Hayward field; it’s due out in October.

And if Clarkson shows no sign of slowing down, neither does he lament the passing of the good old days in photojournalism. In fact, he argues, they’re happening today.

“Everyone is worried we’re losing newspaper jobs,” he said. “We shouldn’t be obsessed with that. We are in a very visual age right now. It hasn’t defined itself in terms today that you can see exactly where it’s going. It’s going so many places at the same time that I tell people, we are in a golden age of photography — right now.”

  1. Incredible story and photography! Will the book be available for sale?

  2. Diana, there are no current plans to offer the book for sale.

  3. As I was looking at the image of Brian Lanker hugging Mr. Clarkson in the recent issue of NPPA it reminded me yet again just about this time twenty-six years ago how accessible this man was as a visual editor, coach and mentor. Not just to his staff but to a young photographer from Redding, CA who had freshly mounted black and white images on boards and a new 16×20 portfolio box.

    With a letter in hand and wife and daughter in tow we headed to Denver for my meeting and portfolio review with Mr. Clarkson and I was terrified having read stories of the expectations he place on his photographers. Those were the days when staying at the Denver Howard Johnson’s for $55.00 per night was a few days salary.

    I waited in the outer office where there was an awesome amount of commotion when Clarkson called me in at the appointed time and apologized for all the office furry.
    They had just been notified that staffer Anthony Suau had won the Pulitzer.

    “Now where’s that portfolio you brought?” He was honest, tough and patient, more importantly he could articulate where I was as a photojournalist and what I needed to do to improve.

    At one point he waved off an interruption of champaign and congratulations coming from around the world. He was intent on giving me my time.

    As we parted he invited my wife and I to the Pulitzer celebration that was being held later that night. We didn’t attend, fear, I guess.

    Four years later I accepted my first position as a Director of Photography and the traits that I learned from Mr. Clarkson were those that I tried to remember daily. Admittedly some days better than others.

    Be accessible; show patience; show respect and demand excellence.

  4. Rich! Wonderful to see all these pictures and to read all the tributes to you and your work!
    I know you best from the Missouri Photo Workshops (I was a student at 7 of them…slow
    learner, perhaps, but this was where the genius talent in photojournalism was) and also
    at the TRUTH WITH A CAMERA WORKSHOP I started about 15 years ago, and now continues with workshops in Mexico and Ecuador, special work in Haiti and other places.
    I love the fact that aren’t lamenting “the good old days”! I agree “they are happening
    today. The golden age of photography is RIGHT NOW !” I have never seen smarter, more
    sensitive photographers than we have now. So many are combining “Social Justice and
    Photojournalism.” As you know, The Edom Foundation is developing a project which
    pairs our veterans with photojournalists to tell their stories. I see this as similar to the
    Farm Security Administration photographs that educated the public and helped improve
    lives of the people living through the Depression of the 1930’s. My Best to you!
    Dr. Vme Edom Smith, Director, Edom Foundation for Photojournalism Education