Picture This

How the guy behind the camera sees the world

by Tom Gresham

Jeff Clarke is always working even when he's not. Whether on assignment or a day off, the freelance photographer views his surroundings with an eye for striking patterns and unusual plays of light. He envisions how the world around him can best be captured and preserved and admired. He constantly searches for his next shot.

Burlington photographer Jeff Clarke has taken photographs in the field for Business People-Vermont for nearly 10 years, but that's only a small part of what he does. In his Flynn Avenue studio, he uses all the tools of the photographer's trade to serve clients and his own artistic needs.

"It's something you can't just turn off when you're a photographer," Clarke says. "It's working for you all the time. You're always seeing the world that way; you're always kind of framing it."

Clarke started taking pictures for his high school yearbook more than 30 years ago and never quit. Today, he runs his one-man operation, Jeff Clarke Photography, out of a studio on Flynn Avenue in Burlington. His clients are largely corporate and his work typically appears in annual reports, brochures, Web sites and catalogs. He also shoots photos monthly for Business People-Vermont magazine, and his black-and-white photographs of Vermont landscapes can increasingly be found in galleries around the state.

Jeff Clarke's black-and-white photos of Vermont landscapes can increasingly be found in galleries around Vermont and upstate New York. His darkroom area provides all the tools necessary for enlarging and processing his work.

Debra Howard of Debra Howard Communications has worked with Clarke for 15 years. She says he has the ideal combination of qualities in a photographer: He's technically perfect; flexible about assignments; and easy-going with clients and subjects without being easy-going about his standards.

"I've worked with lots of creative people all around New England, and the big thing I've learned is that they need to be talented and they have to be good people in order for a relationship to work," says Howard. "If they have only one, it doesn't work. Jeff has both. He's a great guy, but he's also incredibly talented. He's the perfect person to work with."

Christopher Reck, the president of Direct Design Inc., also points to Clarke's personable manner and reliable skill as the reasons for a working relationship that has lasted over a decade. Clarke takes corporate portraits, product photos and location photos for Reck's business.

"The work he has done runs the whole gamut of the needs we have here," Reck says. "He always gets it right."

Clarke says his variety of clients ensures that he is not likely to fall prey to ruts and become bored. He is usually on the road, visiting businesses. He learns about the company, its employees, how it operates. Each day is distinctive from the rest. Each day, he says, feels fresh.

"One of the things I really like about photography is that my work is always different," says Clarke. "I'm always going somewhere new, meeting new people, doing something interesting; and the challenges are always changing."

Freelance photography can be demanding, tense work. Deadlines are piled upon deadlines and that's for the lucky ones. Even more worrisome is an absence of deadlines. There is no steady paycheck to arrive every other Friday. No 401(k) or health insurance benefits. No paid vacation or sick days. A day off is a day without earnings.

However, Clarke revels in the unconventional nature of his career. He long ago learned to live with the stress of a 20-hour week.

"It used to really panic me to have a week like that," says Clarke. "At some point, I learned to just let go of it, to understand that that was the way the business was, and if I had a slow week, to just go skiing."

Rather, he says the roller-coaster schedule of a freelance photographer suits his personality and his preferred method of work. Instead of the monotonous rhythms of a customary work week, Clarke experiences intense fits and relaxing lulls. He enjoys them both.

He is quick to note he moved to Burlington primarily with play in mind not work. He has an active outdoor recreation life and enjoys skiing, bicycling, sailing, whitewater canoeing, hiking and backpacking in the Adirondacks.

Skiing is a particular thrill: Clarke has served on the weekend ski patrol for seven years at Sugarbush and figures he is on the slopes about 50 days a year. At age 48, Clarke only recently retired from competitive ultimate Frisbee. He had competed for about 20 years in a local league, until five years ago, when he decided he "didn't want to chase guys in their early 20s around anymore."

Clarke also uses his occasional slow periods to spend time with his new wife, Deborah Blon, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Vermont. They met five years ago on a blind date, and were married in August.

"We're very different people," Clarke says with a grin. "That's kind of why we get along."

Clarke's interest in photography began in high school, when one of his father's friends taught him how to develop film in a darkroom. His high school in Brockport, N.Y., did not offer a photography course, but, fortunately, Clarke's father was also his art teacher and allowed him to do some photo projects. Clarke entered the photographs in local competitions and won a handful of awards.

Following high school, Clarke attended the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale to study underwater photography. After a stint in Rochester, N.Y., working as a freelancer, He attended Plattsburgh State, where he majored in environmental science, figuring it would wed nicely with his underwater photography skills.

It did. He combined the two in a position as a photographer on a National Science Foundation research project, where Clarke wrote the script and produced the photographs for a slide show on the study of nutrient cycles in the Okefenokee Swamp. The slide show traveled around the country with researchers, educating a series of audiences. When the grant for the project expired, Clarke landed a position as a staff photographer at the University of Georgia.

He soon began to crave a return to the Northeast and, particularly, to Lake Champlain. In 1985, following a 10-week, 5,000-mile solo cycling trip across the United States that afforded him plentiful opportunities to consider his options, Clarke moved to Burlington, secured a small-business loan and began looking for customers.

"I took a deep breath and jumped in," Clarke remembers.

He focused on commercial clients from the start no weddings picking up jobs early on for local colleges and businesses. He also shot some color stock landscape photographs for publications such as Vermont Life. He says those photos helped "satisfy his personal photography needs."

While searching through some old negatives about five years ago, Clarke discovered a batch of black-and-white landscape photographs he had taken in college. He soon returned to the form, and says he enjoys the landscape pictures more than any other photography he does.

"If I could make a living just taking those, I would."

Clarke has black-and-white landscape photographs showing and available for sale at a number of galleries around Vermont and in upstate New York, and is working on placing some photographs at galleries in Boston and New York City. A showing of his landscapes opened at the Flynndog Gallery in Burlington this month.

"They are absolutely stunning," says Howard, an amateur photographer herself. "I covet some of them and I have let him know that with absolute directness."

"One of the things I really like about photography is that my work is always different ... and the challenges are always changing."

Black-and-white images provide a much different view of nature than color photos, says Clarke, illustrating patterns more vividly and producing a mood somehow more dramatic than life itself.

The landscape photographs give him a visceral thrill. "When I'm in the darkroom and the images blow up on me there in the prints, I can really feel a harmony with them. It's a great feeling."

Clarke continues to develop his pictures by hand, having resisted the move to the digital photography that has swept through the profession. He can deliver pictures promptly to clients through e-mail with the use of a scanner, he says, and does not believe the move to digital has been appropriate for him. Still, he plans to yield to the technological advances next year and purchase a digital camera.

"I've been waiting for the cost to go down and the quality to go up," he says. "I wanted to see it meet more of an equilibrium."

Clarke has been taking portraits to accompany Business People stories since 1995, when the publication was called Business Digest. Over the years, he has worked to develop a knack for producing shots that suggest the personality and character of his subjects. He says it's a matter of relaxing the subject and staying open to what transpires until "you see an expression or a moment where they just reveal themselves to you and show you who they are."

He claims he does not need to see an image on film to know whether he nailed a frame or not. "I always know it right away."

Certainly Clarke's facility for catching that moment on film is made possible by his ready awareness of his surroundings. Although he appreciates the heightened sense of the world that photography has brought him, he believes an occasional break is worthwhile.

"You can drive yourself crazy," he says. "It's fairly difficult for me to just sit and watch a sunset and say, 'That's a nice sunset.' It's hard for me to say, 'I don't have to grab my camera. I can just sit and enjoy this.' There are definitely times where I want to just shut down and enjoy the moment. I can do it sometimes, though usually it's only because I don't have my camera with me."

Originally published in January 2005 Business People-Vermont