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Mike Tharp: The man who made the pictures

Mike Tharp
Mike Tharp

I held the ladder.

In what must be one of the justifiably least-noticed agate-type footnotes to the history of American journalism, I held the ladder.

For Rich Clarkson. One of America's best photojournalists of the past 50 years. For the first-ever camera shot through a glass backboard at a basketball game. A shot that's so routine now that fans yawn when they see snarling players' faces around the peach-colored rim, HD fury 10 feet high.

But a shot that was revolutionary in its day -- the early 1960s. And in its place -- legendary Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan., lair of the Jayhawks. I was a teenage copy boy at the Topeka Capital-Journal when Rich asked me if I wanted to go to a KU game and help carry his Nikons.

Would Dee Tatum like to retire again? Would Mark Pazin like to bust a gang-banger on TV? Would Ellie Wooten like to sell a house?

I was there.

About three hours before the 7:30 p.m. tipoff. I forget who the Jayhawks were playing. But I'll never forget holding an aluminum ladder while the director of photography at the Capital-Journal, himself a KU grad, teetered at the top. He was taping and attaching and fine-tuning an expensive Japanese camera to a metal strut behind the backboard. The lens was focused on the basket. He taped a cord along the stanchion, then along the floor and ran it to a remote-controlled, battery-powered shutter he held.

Ka-chick! Ka-chick! Ka-chick!

He must've pushed that shutter dozens of time during the game while still shooting conventional shots from the sidelines and baselines of the court. And later, after he conjured his darkroom alchemy back at the newspaper -- developing film, printing prints, "dodging and burning" as it was called (using a blacked-out tool shaped like a bubble-blower to set the time of light exposure for the print), drying, cropping (trimming) and writing a cutline (caption)...

Ta-daaah! A black and white photo of a college basketball player defying gravity inches below where the net loops to the rim. It would later be published in Sports Illustrated, for which Rich shot dozens of covers over the decades.

And I held the ladder.

Why this time-trip?

Because I'm a doofus and a jerk.

Rich, who more than anybody else in my life has been a journalistic guru and Sherpa, sent me his latest book a few weeks ago: "The Champions -- Kansas Basketball at the Pinnacle." A gorgeous coffee table tome filled with Rich's photographs of KU's national championship teams in 1952, 1988 and last year. It's in my office. He signed it to me, someone "who has more than a casual acquaintance with the game of basketball."

Usually, because of how we were raised by Mama and Papa, I send a formal thank-you card to anybody who's done something nice for me. This time I sat on my assets and sent Rich nothing. Not even an e-mail.

So this column's for you, Clarker.

Kaleidoscopic images of this major influence in my life unspool through my memory:

wading waist-deep one night through floodwaters in Frankfort, Kan., again carrying his camera bags, learning that nothing should stop you from getting the story;

a trip to Vegas with another darkroom boy in Rich's new Thunderbird. We helped drive him to the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) convention, for which he was an officer;

After a killer tornado roared three blocks from our house, I ran a mile to where Rich lived. He was sitting on the steps of his condo, a concrete slab behind him, all that was left of it. He held a photo album. Looking at me, he asked if I wanted to ride with him to "make some pictures." Dozens of them were in the next day's newspaper;

shaking hands with Jim Ryun, world record holder in the mile, hired by Rich as a darkroom boy in Topeka;

his quiet advice, after I returned from a hitchhiking trip round Europe, where my girlfriend left me in Luxembourg, that I go to KU's journalism grad school; I did, and that led to my being hired by the Wall Street Journal in Dallas;

on the sidelines of the Oklahoma/Texas game in Dallas in the '70s, where Rich was shooting for both the Capital-Journal and for a book he did on OU receiver Tinker Owens;

my profile of him on the front page of the Journal, along with a sidebar on the paper's managing editor explanation of why the WSJ (then) didn't use photographs: " we don't have to use photographers."

hanging out in the press village at the Seoul Olympics; this was just after Clarkson left a stint as photo director of National Geographic magazine;

touring Coors Field with Jerod Haase, a KU guard in the late '90s, who'd written a daily journal of his senior year, later published -- with several Clarkson photos -- as "Floor Burns" (and edited by me);

rising with the audience in applause after seeing the Clarkson-produced documentary on Arlington National Cemetery; this came two years ago when he won the William Allen White Award from the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications (other winners had names like Cronkite and Woodward).

For all the thousands of iconic images Rich himself has produced, his greater legacy may be the legion of shooters he's scared, trained and sent off to run their own fabulous shows. Clarkson protégés have won Pulitzers, NPPA awards, run the darkrooms of places like the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Eugene Register-Guard and, today, National Geographic.

The magazine's editor, Chris Johns, once made pictures (the shooters' preferred term of art) for Rich. Before that he was also an intern in Topeka. Unfortunately for him, that gig came after Rich had hired a young woman named Susan Ford as an intern for a summer. Her dad happened to be president of the United States at the time.

So the editor of National Geographic is known by Topeka alums as "the other intern."

Rich has run his own multimedia show in Denver for many years now, and he's the official photographer of, among others, the Colorado Rockies and the NCAA. Check him out at

So, Clarker, sorry to be late with this, but thank you for the book.

And for letting me hold the ladder.

Executive editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2427/2456 or