Elite photographer finds the best stuff outside white lines

Rich Clarkson, for decades among the elite of the nation's sports photographers, is sitting in a dining room at the Brown Palace Hotel here, for decades among the elite of the nation's hotels.

The two could not be more simpatico.

After all, the Brown Palace drips with style, dating to 1892, when it opened. There's often a harpist at play in the extraordinarily grand lobby, where high tea is offered. A fireplace mantel up in one of the suites still displays a dent, put there by President Eisenhower hitting a golf ball. The Brown even has its own artesian well to ensure the purest water - very classy.

And Clarkson, seldom seen not wearing a sport coat in a time of sweeping informality, is dapper and elegant himself. His resume is the stuff of genius.

Clarkson not only is one of the all-time best photographers that the photographically supreme Sports Illustrated ever has had (he also has some 70 covers to his credit), but former director of photography for National Geographic magazine, co-author of six books, president of the National Press Photographers Association, and photographic tutor for Susan Ford, daughter of former President Ford - classy.

But are both - the Brown's embrace of the past and Clarkson's embrace of the still photograph - at risk of going the way of the dodo bird? Remember, the dodo became extinct largely because it was a bird that couldn't fly.

Clarkson can't speak for the Brown, but he bristles at the idea that still photography will be classified along with snap- brim hats and hula hoops. "The single still has incredible power," he says.

At core, Clarkson says a great photograph is "one moment that defines the essence of what is happening. It's a decisive moment, a frozen moment. It's storytelling. We remember great events largely by single photographs - the D-Day landings, planting the flag at Iwo Jima, the Vietnam War, John John saluting his father at the funeral, Babe Ruth's last appearance at Yankee Stadium."

Basically, Clarkson suggests, a still photo "goes to the point, epitomizes a moment, distills an event to where we get a message out of it."

And while color photography fits beautifully with the drama and excitement of sports, Clarkson is noticing more work in old-style black and white, a "return to elegance," he calls it.

The advantage of black and white is it "goes right to the heart, to the expressions, to the moods, and it gets there much quicker. Black and white seems to have a documentary nature to it."

Indeed, Clarkson - who owns a photo and publishing business here whose clients include the NCAA, the Colorado Rockies, and the Denver Broncos - is dead correct in his analysis of still photography. Although in today's fast cut, all-video all-the-time, MTV world, a plain old photo can seem like a horse and buggy, that clearly is not the case.

A still photo allows us - yea, compels us - to stop, look, and consider. It allows us to go far beyond the surface and ponder that frozen moment.

Perhaps the key value of a still photo is it makes the viewer think.

A few years ago, a brilliant photo was taken after an NFL game of former San Francisco quarterback Steve Young and current Packer QB Brett Favre. It was shot from behind the two after the game, their arms around each other, covered in mud. Nobody could glance at that picture and go on. It demands our thoughtful attention.

A still photo demands more of us.

Clarkson, who has covered 45 NCAA Final Four basketball championships, says his favorite celebration photo was taken when the University of Connecticut won and "the whole bench was going nuts." This illustrates Clarkson's belief that often the best picture of a sports event is something outside the white lines.

To excel as a photographer, Clarkson says, requires "natural ability, inquisitiveness, charm, persuasiveness. The last element is intensity." The best all-time sports photographers, in Clarkson's view, are George Silk, John Zimmerman, Walter Iooss Jr., and Neil Leifer. He didn't mention an obvious choice: Rich Clarkson.

Walking through the lobby of the venerable Brown Palace, he muses, "Nice hotel." And then Clarkson has a final thought about the value of still photography in a go-go world: "When was the last time somebody called you and asked for an original of one of your stories?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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