Mission St, SF© David Clarkson

 Today we feature the work and words of David Clarkson. 

Would you please tell us a little about yourself? 

In 1965, while serving in the Marine Corps, a friend loaned his camera to me. From the moment I held it and shot a few rolls I somehow felt a connection, a then uncertain joy. After the service I attended CSULB, graduating with a degree in Philosophy. I continued to make photographs and soon converted our bathroom into a darkroom. I was hooked. 

Over the next forty years, my family followed my corporate career, living on both coasts and, for an extended time, in the Midwest. After graduate school and a career managing manufacturing businesses that limited my photography efforts, I now devote most of my time to making photographs, a joy no longer uncertain. 

O’Farrell St Umbrella © David Clarkson

Where did you get your photographic training? 

In 1971 I took a basic B&W film-based class at Cal State Long Beach. The home darkroom in the bathtub followed. It wasn’t until the early 2000’s that I took a similar course. The rest of my “training” was and is still self-inflicted. Fortunately, I have found like-minded friends who compare successes and failures. 

Lucy in the Sky © David Clarkson
Yurba Buena Place, SF © David Clarkson

Why do you photograph? 

Photography reconnects me to my beginnings and who I once was. My Midwestern family and friends included blacksmiths, railroad men, barkeeps, farmers, industrial line workers, and clerks. Few had educations beyond high school. These folks worked hard and stayed close to their birthplace. 

I was one of the few that left. However, fifty years of the Marine Corps, university, and corporate life gave me the feeling that I did not belong, loosed from the moorings of my past and uncomfortable in a new life. I traded the familiarity of a small town for the anonymity of the city. Either can kill the soul. Both can provide comfort. 

Unfortunately, one cannot go back. 

Modern urban environments reconnect me to the folks with whom I lived, loved, and laughed. The settings differ, but the players are much the same. Everyday people leading everyday lives crowd these streets. If I cannot return to what once was, I can at least use my camera to get closer, to somehow make a connection, however fleeting. 

With my corporate life complete, I am free to walk and make photographs, while exploring today’s hectic cities, among those who feel familiar to me. 

Who has had an influence on your creative process? 

The work of Robert Frank, Gordon Parks, Garry Winogrand, and others have inspired my work while providing direction. Recently, Brian Taylor, Executive Director of the Center for Photographic Art, has served as an honest mentor for my most recent efforts. I am better for his unflinching advice. My wife has been an all-in supporter from the beginning, and my toughest critic. 

Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time. 

In 1998 my wife and I visited Gordon Parks’ retrospective, Half Past Autumn, at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. On the opening vestibule wall stood Parks’ photograph Mrs. Jefferson made in Fort Smith Kansas in 1949. 

The large print showed a proud, self-assured, regal woman in all her glory, not in the trappings of grandeur, but in the simple clothes of a woman who worked all her life. Her weathered skin carried the lines of work. She was beautiful beyond measure. Her cane became a royal staff. Her simple shawl an ermine blanket. Her rocking chair a throne. Her front porch a stage. A true and powerful Queen. 

Parks set her in full profile with lighting that enhanced every detail. No soft focus or make up. He allowed her to be who she was. Finally, his printing was beautifully executed. 

I will never forget the picture. 

What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson? 

This recent lesson may serve only as reinforcement of a lesson that I continue to learn rather than any new epiphany. 

On March 5, 2018 Time published The Opioid Diaries, the first edition the company ever gave to a single photographer – James Nachtwey. In 31 photographs, Nachtwey makes a powerful visual statement about how we care for each other. The images disturbed me more than any series I have seen. 

I could not get the images out of my head, and my edits from the next day’s shooting reflect the feelings I had looking at Nachtwey’s work. We ignore the uncomfortable, the others. 

What makes a good day for you creatively speaking? 

Walking in any of the major American cities. For me there is a creative pleasure in finding new and unusual scenes that dot all urban areas. 

Mission near 4th © David Clarkson

If you could spend a day with any other photographer or artist living or passed who would it be? 

Robert Frank. I would just watch and listen. 

What equipment have you found essential in the making of your work? 

Good walking shoes for the streets and responsive Fujifilm cameras to provide the necessary auto focus speed. 

What hangs on your walls? 

Obviously, some of my work. I also have images from Mark Wainer (a wonderful Santa Cruz photographer), J Paul Bruce (Dayton, Ohio), a Fan Ho photograph made in Hong Kong harbor, and one each from my good friends  Jim Messer, James Atherton, and Matt Connors. Finally, I have an Ansel Adams print of a Joshua Tree printed by Alan Ross and a Brian Taylor hand-made book. 

What is on the horizon? 

I have been working on a project, tentatively called “83 American Photographs,” for a couple of years. It will be an homage to Robert Frank and his mentor, Walker Evans. My objective is to understand Frank’s pathos and make it my own. The result will be a video and, later, a book. 

Thank you David for sharing your work.

To learn more about the work of David Clarkson please visit his site at David Clarkson. 

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