The dim basement resembles a library archive, not the sublevel of a home in suburban Denver.
Nondescript bankers’ boxes – 125 of them, each labeled in black marker – sit heavy on bookshelves circling a concrete floor. One reads “1972 Munich;” next to it, another is marked “1968 Mexico City.” On more shelves along nearby walls, stacks of old copies of the Topeka (Kansas) Capital-Journal and the Los Angeles Times rise in meticulous columns. A light table, once an essential tool for photographers, rests in the middle of the room surrounded by retired camera cases, a 30-year-old Macintosh and a generous magazine archive.
Rich Clarkson buries his hands in one of those boxes, sifting through the hundreds of photographs inside, searching for memories. He could reach into any one of these boxes and pull out a spellbinding shot: politicians, auto accidents, carnage from a tornado.
He draws out a photo of Stan Musial, close to retirement, hunched over and alone on the St. Louis Cardinals bench. Next, he draws out a sequence of photos from the 1972 Munich Olympics: A Russian basketball player holding his arms up triumphantly, followed by three American players. One looks like his stomach is trying to wring out its contents. Another is angry. The last looks to be in deep shock. The U.S. had just lost the Olympic gold-medal game, in controversial style, to the Russians.
They’re the types of images for which Clarkson is best remembered – moments that reflect a deeper humanity that influenced the way people look at sports. Clarkson focused not just on the action, but also on the defining moments that came before the big games and after the big shots. He developed a signature low-angle style shot from a camera placed just off the baseline and pioneered the mounting of cameras behind backboards and above locker rooms to capture unique perspectives. College sports was his preferred canvas for capturing those innovative illustrations of significant moments. It took him to dozens of Final Fours, where he captured some of the most memorable and reproduced images from the tournament: University of Kansas basketball coach Phog Allen giving his Jayhawks a pep talk at halftime; UCLA center Lew Alcindor pulling down a rebound over the University of Houston’s Elvin Hayes; North Carolina State University coach Jim Valvano, dazed from a historic upset of Houston, being hoisted onto the shoulders of his players and fans.
Even at 82, Clarkson still has an appetite for capturing those moments of humanity that allow sport to speak to people. That hunger will take him back to the baseline this spring, his 60th trip to the Final Four. But this time, Clarkson expects, he will close a chapter of his life.
This Final Four, he expects, will be his last.
The tunnels were a perfect playground for Clarkson and his boyhood pals, who played games as they snuck through the University of Kansas’ heating system, guessing which doors led to which buildings. With only one security guard to dodge, the boys were free to explore, and in time they became familiar enough with the labyrinth to find their way into Robinson Gymnasium, a Gothic-style building with room for 2,500 spectators. The Kansas Jayhawks practiced there.
One day in 1939, the boys snuck in to find the team in the middle of a workout, so they took a seat along a wall and watched coach Phog Allen instruct his team. When the coach spotted the boys during a water break, he introduced them to another guest at his practice.
“Boys, why don’t you meet the other gentleman who’s watching the game?” Clarkson recalls Allen saying to them. Then he introduced them to his old coach, the man who created the game: James Naismith.
Clarkson had yet to publish his first article or snap his first photograph – but the introduction proved a perfect stage-setter for the boy who would go on to cover eight of every 10 Final Fours ever played.
Clarkson grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, and lived above one of its top restaurants, the Colonial Tea Room. It was owned by his grandmother, Fannie Murphy, who presided over its kitchen while his mother, Mary Clarkson, worked as the hostess and oversaw the dining room. The restaurant drew Kansas professors, local politicians and businessmen, exposing the young Clarkson to those intellects daily. The area’s most successful minds taught him about the world, politics, business and education.
So at age 12, Clarkson started his own business – an aeronautics newspaper called Aero Science. He wrote to known names in the industry to solicit submissions: Eddie Rickenbacker and heralded British aeronautics writer Peter Masefield, among others. He printed the biweekly newspapers – which grew as large as 18 pages and reached a peak circulation of 75 – on a county school superintendent’s mimeograph. For three years he sold the ads, wrote the articles and managed his staff of three friends.
The job at times provided compelling material. The head of aeronautical engineering at Kansas was among his best sources, even inviting Clarkson to interview a man whose biography the aspiring journalist had just finished.
“He was in Lawrence?” his surprised father, Maurice Clarkson, asked over dinner that night. “Did you get his autograph?”
Clarkson replied gruffly. “Journalists don’t ask for autographs,” he said.
Clarkson continues the story, dropping the kicker with Paul Harvey precision. “And that’s why I don’t have Orville Wright’s autograph.”
By his senior year in high school, Clarkson was covering Jayhawks basketball games and selling his photos to newspapers in Topeka and Kansas City for $7.50 apiece. He began traveling with the Jayhawks and filing game stories from the road for the Lawrence Journal-World while rooming several nights a year with a young, scholarly guard named Dean Smith. When Clarkson was a freshman at Kansas, he followed the Jayhawks – home and away – as Clyde Lovellette, the nation’s leading scorer, guided Kansas to its first NCAA tournament title.
Clarkson was still in college when Maurice Clarkson pointed out that his son was earning more money than he was.
And at that point, his son had spent all those earnings on new cameras and equipment.
Clarkson’s stories can make him sound like a photojournalist version of Forrest Gump, hopscotching through the 20th century with career milestones that mesh with the big moments of history. He covered a murder trial with young author Truman Capote, who was documenting the proceedings for his upcoming true-crime thriller, “In Cold Blood,” a book credited with giving birth to the narrative non-fiction genre. Joining Capote to assist with research was his childhood friend who had just published her first book, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Harper Lee told Clarkson the book was selling pretty well. Clarkson once had dinner with former President Harry Truman and listened to his colorful opinions of Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill. On assignment, he photographed President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Medicare bill.
No, his life wasn’t always about sports. But sports never left his life.
In 1981, he turned down a position at Sports Illustrated in order to lead the photo staff at the Denver Post, but the magazine kept him on as a freelancer. When National Geographic lured him away from the Post to lead its legendary photo department, it allowed him to continue his contract with the sports magazine. And when he left National Geographic to lead the development of his friend Brian Lanker’s project to photograph impactful African-American women – “I Dream a World,” one of the most successful coffee table books of all time – Clarkson still spent his weekends photographing college sports.
In 1989, when Clarkson established his own business, one of Clarkson Creative’s first clients was the NCAA. That relationship gave birth to NCAA Photos, which now photographs all 89 NCAA championships.
The games provided something other worldly events couldn’t match. You can see it in the faces of the people he featured: the determination and boyish looks of Indiana swimmer Mark Spitz; the respect UCLA forward Sidney Wicks showed as he shook the hand of coach John Wooden, with whom he’d had a tense relationship, as he exited the 1971 national championship game; the elation from the celebrating University of Connecticut bench as it raced onto the court – leaping, screaming, pumping fists – after clinching its first men’s basketball title in 1999.
A career in photojournalism is an unquenchable search for real and definitive moments. College sports provided Clarkson with those tears and cheers as naturally as dribbles and whistles. There he found raw emotion exposed where no political spin or bureaucracy could provide cover.
As he searches through the boxes in his basement, Clarkson comes to a thin, rectangular cardboard case sitting on a bookshelf. Its label: “First portfolio.” He pulls out the container with nostalgic interest. The box looks as if it had sat undisturbed for years, if not decades.
“This is all early stuff,” he says about the scrapbook inside, “when I was in high school and college.”
One of the first photographs is of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. Another is a portrait of a young basketball player in a Kansas jersey, sitting on a folding chair, looking upward and smiling broadly as he ties his left shoe, knees projecting from the photo as if the shot were three-dimensional.
“Chamberlain,” he says. “I wouldn’t say it was a great picture.” He sold the silver and gray picture to Sports Illustrated in 1955. It remains the iconic image of Wilt Chamberlain’s college career.
The portfolio is carefully organized, each photo prudently attached, by a young man intent on making a strong impression to start his career – one that ultimately followed a path his wildest dreams couldn’t have predicted.
“I never showed it to anyone,” Clarkson says. “I never had to show a portfolio to get a job.”