Woe be it for the photographer that came back to the Topeka Capital-Journal photography department with images of a ribbon cutting seared by light into the emulsion of a roll of Tri-X film. Back in the day, when the Topeka paper set the standard for newspaper photojournalism, the demanding leader of the department, Rich Clarkson, carved important catch phrases into our minds. They scarred us with the memory of the hurt, but now have become the kind of scar we are not afraid to show off in a “chicks dig scars” way.
“We don’t shoot ribbon cuttings!”
That was one of a long list of edicts we all learned to follow. Yes, we did shoot ribbon cuttings, just not the actual cutting of the ribbon. The picture was before or after that told a more interesting aspect of why we were there in the first place. The same held true for a ground breaking or check presentation.
How funny it was then that on Friday night that edict came back immediately to a small group of former staff photographers together again in Lawrence at the William Allen White School of Journalism on the University of Kansas campus. We gathered for the dedication of the Richard C. Clarkson Gallery. Flanked by KU chancellor, Bernadette Gray-Little, and the dean of the School of Journalism, Ann Brill, our beloved former leader stood, giant scissors in hand.
That is when the “Maniacal Seven” arrived to the rescue. Every one of the former staffers cried out calling for the ceremony to be stopped. Instantly, the chancellor’s and dean’s faces filled with displeasure. This all could have gone so terribly wrong, but we were not to be stopped. We plunged on reminding Clarkson that we “don’t shoot ribbon cuttings.”
At that moment, a realization set in for Clarkson. His own rules of photographic deportment came back to haunt him. There was no danger of reprisal because we had left him shocked and speechless. Clarkson began to laugh, and the rest of the guests slowly came to see this was all in fun. With the ribbon snipped, the gallery was officially opened. An explanation helped the skeptical chancellor understand the spirit of our disruption and left her with a smile on her face.
The rest of the two-day celebration of Clarkson’s largesse to his beloved School of Journalism passed without incident. Impressively, the new gallery is a testimony to Clarkson’s amazing ability to remain current over a span of 80 years. Large HD screens, not prints, filled the gallery walls on which images carried guests through his storied career.
Saturday morning’s show celebrated that career. So much praise for Clarkson’s ability to identify and develop photographers is afforded him that his brilliant photographic skills are often overlooked. Saturday’s presentation of 30o wonderful images helped enlighten the 200 guests in a student union auditorium. Displayed on a huge screen while Clarkson discussed his career with former Kansan and national sports broadcaster Gary Bender, the photographs and words blended together wonderfully.
The 57 Final Fours Clarkson photographed were prominently featured, but his news photography helped add dimension to a career that began as a school boy. Everyone enjoyed stories that ranged from his time with Truman Capote, the author of In Cold Blood, while covering the Clutter family murder trial in western Kansas to famed KU basketball coach Phog Allen, whom Clarkson first met as a boy.
One photograph seemed to sum up the weekend for me. Sitting in an ancient locker room, the members of a basketball team stared together at someone or something unseen. However, there reflected in a mirror hung on wall was the face of legendary Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp speaking to his team. So revered and respected at the time, every player paid Rupp their complete attention without ever thinking of looking into the camera as players would today.
The photograph made me think back to all those edicts Clarkson drilled into his photographers. Each and every one was thoughtfully designed to help us see something beyond the obvious just as Clarkson had in the locker room photograph from the ’60’s.
I hope Clarkson understood our interruption of his ribbon cutting was a sign of utmost respect. With our taunts we paid homage to a man who means so much to photojournalism and to every photographer that worked for him and are still learning from him today.