Dean of Local Photographers to Retire in December

Robert Jordan has shot more than a million photos across his 33-year career

After 33 years of shooting photographs for the university, Robert Jordan is looking forward to a slower pace. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – For more than three decades, Robert Jordan has profoundly shaped how the world perceives the University of Mississippi. His photographs have documented the natural beauty of the Oxford campus through all seasons, captured critical moments of thrilling athletic triumphs and conveyed the dedication and achievements of its faculty, staff, students and alumni.

But after shooting more than a million photos, Jordan, director of university photography, is looking forward to a slower pace. He’s retiring at the end of the fall semester and already has a few goals for the coming months.

“I’m looking forward to sleeping late, playing some golf, reading some books and spending time with my wife,” he said. “I’ll always have that itch, and I’ll be taking photographs as long as I’m able, but it will be for fun, not how I make my living.”

University Communications is hosting a retirement reception for Jordan from 3 to 5 p.m. Wednesday (Nov. 29) in the Farrington Gallery of Bryant Hall. The event is open to the public.

Jordan’s work played a critical role in the university’s rise as a respected public university, Chancellor Emeritus Robert Khayat said.

“I knew at the outset in ’95 that Robert would be a key player in what we were doing here at Ole Miss,” Khayat said. “I knew we had a beautiful campus, attractive people and gorgeous trees and buildings and spaces, and we just needed to show everybody.

“Robert is a gifted artist. He could make that camera talk. He is quiet, unobtrusive, humble, kind and patient. He would take the time to shoot an assignment over and over until he got exactly what we needed, and he made remarkable contributions to the university that will be treasured and studied forever.”

In a field where people frequently change jobs, Jordan has spent virtually his entire professional career at Ole Miss. He graduated in December 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and got a job in Greenville as a photographer at the Delta Democrat-Times.

“Newspaper work is exciting, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my degree,” he recalled.

So barely four months later, when somebody from the UM Department of Public Relations called with the news that Jack Cofield was retiring as university photographer, Jordan jumped at the opportunity to return to his alma mater.

“The thing that’s so cool about being a university photographer is that you never know from one day to the next what you’re going to be doing,” he said. “You may be shooting an event for the chancellor’s office one day and then going into a lab to photograph some researcher’s work the next. And then you may shoot outstanding students right after that.

“The challenge every day is to see the campus with new eyes and see something you’ve never seen before. I still get excited when I see something new.”

Over his 33 years on campus, Jordan has shot an estimated 10,000 assignments and mentored dozens of rising young photographers. Among them are Kevin Bain, who has worked as one of the university’s photographers for 18 years, and Thomas Graning, the department’s newest photographer.

Bain began working for the old Imaging Services Department as a student, answering phones and helping customers with orders.

Chancellor Emeritus Robert Khayat says this 1998 image of him walking with students and staff members is his favorite photo of himself. The photo, shot by Robert Jordan, was distributed statewide by the Associated Press. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Communications

“That was back in the film days, and if he saw I didn’t have much to do, he was cool about saying, ‘Here’s a roll of film. Go out and see what you can do,'” Bain said. “I was an English major, and he was really good about showing me how to get different kinds of shots.”

Jordan also befriended Bruce Newman, photographer at the Oxford Eagle for the past 31 years, shortly after he started working for the newspaper.

“He’s always been very helpful to me, whether we’ve been shooting games together or just hanging out talking about photography,” Newman said. “He’s very technically gifted, and he likes to help solve problems and figure out how to get the best shot.

“I’ve always enjoyed working with him, but more importantly I have always valued his friendship.”

During Jordan’s time on campus, advancing technology has dramatically changed how the job is done.

In the beginning, his job was primarily to shoot and develop black-and-white photos to accompany news releases. He took on the task of shooting color for recruiting materials and other publications, and later helped convert the entire operation to digital when that technology replaced film.

He’s also experimented with underwater camera housings, special lenses, infrared film and camera drones to shoot campus scenes and activities.

“I’ve just tried to stay up with the technology and find new ways to capture Ole Miss,” he said. “I feel like I was in the right place at the right time to have a great career. I’ve had fun and most days, I feel like I’ve made a difference.”

Besides shooting assignments, Jordan supervises the department’s other photographers and helps maintain equipment and technology. He also puts those organizational skills to work for the University Photographers’ Association of America, serving on the organization’s board for the last 14 years.

“He’s the best,” said Glenn Carpenter, the association’s president. “He’s been a tremendous asset in helping organize events and programs, and being able to see things clearly and offer advice on how to make them run better.”

Jordan frequently has helped new members become oriented to the group, and also helps fellow members figure out the best way to get difficult shots, Carpenter said. He also has been honored many times for his creativity in the Nikon Shoot-Out, a competition sponsored at the group’s annual convention by the camera maker.

“In our group, Robert has won that contest more than anybody else,” Carpenter said. “He’s that good at taking somebody else’s idea and transforming it into a finished photo.”

Jordan can visualize how a photo will turn out even before shooting a single frame, Bain said.

“He’s one of the best, if not the best, photographers in the South,” he said. “He’s a wizard with light. I can set up lights and flashes to get a good shot, but Robert can always tweak it and make it better. That’s a big part of why his shots look so great.”

Around Oxford, many people know Jordan for this work with Nine Lives Cat Rescue and the Oxford-Lafayette Humane Society, where he photographs cats available for adoption. Jordan and his wife, Clarissa, have had cats in their home for more than a decade, so this work came naturally, he said.

“Some people are cat people, some people are dog people,” he explained. “I’m a cat person. I don’t dislike dogs; I just like cats better.”

Surprisingly, Jordan’s career almost took a far different path. In his hometown of Ocean Springs, he worked as a bank teller through a high school co-op program, so he initially enrolled at the University of South Alabama to major in banking and finance.

Jordan assembled this photo illustration of UM physicist Luca Bombelli for a story on gravitational physics research at the university. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Communications

But his parents had gotten him a Canon AE-1 as a Christmas gift during his senior year in high school, and he later landed a job at the student newspaper at South Alabama.

“I had a horrible GPA because I was skipping all my business classes to shoot photos,” he recalled. He transferred to Ole Miss as a journalism major and quickly began winning accolades for his work in the department’s annual awards program.

Although he looks forward to spending more time with his wife, who retired seven years ago from the North Mississippi Regional Center, Jordan concedes that he’ll probably be a frequent visitor to campus, and notes that he’s available to help shoot Commencement and special projects.

“I’ll be available, but I’m leaving the office in the capable hands of two fine photographers,” Jordan said. “They’re doing a great job, and I’m going to enjoy watching their work.”

Alice Clark, vice chancellor for university relations, credits Jordan’s longtime leadership at the university for a seamless transition.

“In my 35 years at UM, I have had the privilege of sharing the years with Robert, working with him and watching him as he captured the heart and soul of Ole Miss,” she said. “His images and his talent have been instrumental in communicating to the world about the university’s role in transforming lives. The impact of his work will be felt for decades.”