A fateful meeting with Rich Clarkson

A trip to Denver and some great advice gave my career just the kick in the pants it needed
Photographer Rich Clarkson standing on the second floor balcony of the Bowerman Building at Hayward Field in 2014. A spot, incidentally, normally forbidden to photographers. I still don’t know how he managed to get up there, but that is how Clarkson rolled.

As I turn the page on another year as a photojournalist, I am keenly aware of the role that fate has played in my career.

In the mid 1980s I was sending, what passed then as my portfolio, around the country in search of a job with little luck. I made the top five at a few places, but fell short each time at getting an actual job. I was beginning to worry that the dream might not become reality.

In an effort to change my luck, I flew to Denver, Colorado on a whim, crashed on the couch of friend Karlen Andersen, now McBirney, and arranged to visit newspapers in the area.

One of my stops was the Denver Post. After my arrival at the downtown building, an assistant photo editor gave me a quick tour and then unexpectedly ushered me into the office of legendary photographer and photo editor Rich Clarkson. It was all very intimating. I remember the room as long and skinny with a very tall ceiling. At the back of the room sat a large desk and Clarkson. He very politely looked at my portfolio, asked me a few questions and then offered me what may be the single best advice I have ever received. He told me to apply for the Missouri Photo Workshop that was due to start in less than a month.

For those who may not know, The Missouri Workshop is a week-long photojournalism crash course run by the Missouri School of Journalism. It was founded by the “Father of Photojournalism” Cliff Edom in 1949. He and his wife Vi Edom had been running it for decades. During the summer of 1983 they planned to retire. To honor their legacy, a who’s who of photojournalists planned to attend as faculty. While there, I got to rub elbows with, and learn from, legends like Bob Gilka, Angus McDougall, Bill Eppridge, Howard Chapnick and The Rev. Don Doll, among others.

During that workshop week, spent in Mount Vernon, Missouri, I followed a pattern that typified my early career. The images I shot were terrible, but I learned more than I could process. It was an accelerated course in photojournalism that would take me years too manifest in my own work, but I left Missouri with a vision of what I needed to do and a burning desire to make it happen.

Between booking my trip to Missouri and leaving for the workshop, I was offered a job at Idahonian/Pullman Daily News in Moscow, Idaho. When I returned from the workshop I started my first full-time job as a photojournalist and have been fortunate to work as a newspaper photographer ever since.

Chris Pietsch is the director of photography for Gannett Newspapers in Oregon, The Register-Guard in Eugene and the Statesman Journal in Salem.

Follow Chris Pietsch on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.