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By John Murray

Clay Johnson spreads a lot of joy throughout Greater Waterbury with his stunning photographs of sunrises, wildlife, sports and family celebrations. Observer readers have taken notice, and for the 3rd year in a row Johnson was the voted Best Photographer in The Waterbury Observer annual readers’ poll.

Clay Johnson

Hard working and quietly unassuming, Johnson is awake before dawn to photograph sunrises along the Connecticut shoreline, from a hilltop in the northwest corner of Connecticut or from the edge of the Lakewood Reservoir in the North End of Waterbury, Johnson has a spiritual connection with open space and magical light. On one of his social media posts years ago he referred to himself as a BMITW. We asked him what that stood for and he said, “Black Man In The Woods”.

Early morning at Lakewood Reservoir in Waterbury.

Johnson is a rare man comfortable in the solitude of nature and the concrete urban environment he was raised up in North End of Waterbury. Few are the photographers who can stand alone in the woods to embrace the darkness before dawn, capture extraordinary action shots of soccer and football and baseball in the afternoon, and have the social skills to work weddings, birthday parties and family celebrations at night. There are talented sports photographers in Waterbury (Derek Ward, who captured the cover shot of Johnson, is one), there are talented nature photographers in Waterbury, and there are talented portrait photographers in Waterbury, but Clay Johnson fires on all three cylinders which is stunningly impressive.

A Clay Johnson portrait of Waterbury detective Andrea Saunders.

Johnson captured a Crosby wide receiver attempting a near-impossible catch.

His strongest sports work comes during the long Winter months in New England when basketball reigns supreme. Johnson’s ability to anticipate a steal, a dunk or a blocked shot comes from years of playing basketball himself. He was a star at Holy Cross High School in Waterbury and played for the University of Connecticut men’s’ basketball team. Johnson has a heightened awareness of what he is documenting with his camera, an anticipation that comes from decades of playing basketball.

Photographing basketball is a passion for Clay Johnson.

Back in the 1970s Clay Johnson was an all-state player at Holy Cross, won two NVL titles in his career, finished as the second leading scorer in school history (behind Tony Hanson), and was perhaps best remembered for the epic six games he played against his older brother, Steve Johnson, who was the star guard at Crosby. Steve was an all-state player in 1976 and is considered one of the most talented players in Waterbury history. Clay’s teams at Holy Cross won four of the six collisions, but one can only imagine the one-on-one battles between the Johnson brothers on the playgrounds in the city.

The “Brothers Johnson” – Clay on the left, and his older brother Steve.

After playing at UConn in the late 70s Clay returned home to Waterbury to become a city police officer, and after two decades he retired in 2004. When the Observer shared a picture on Facebook that Johnson captured of a swan emerging from the fog at Lakewood Reservoir yesterday, there was an outpouring of admiration with more than 400 likes and dozens of comments. One comment stood out amongst the rest, it was from Amy O’Sullivan, referencing Johnson’s role as a police officer in the city back in the 1990s.

“He used to come into Blimpies downtown when I worked there when I was 18, I’m 45 now, and he was beyond cool to me,” O’Sullivan wrote. “He’d help me close up and make sure I got on the bus safely every night, Blimpies was the only thing open back then at 6 pm, so the creeps would come around my store. I have never forgot how truly cool he was, and how safe I felt when he was there. It seriously meant a lot to me being a small, young girl alone in downtown Waterbury, especially in the winter months when it as dark at 6 pm. A lot of times I missed the last bus to Town Plot so I’d have to wait for someone to come get me, and he would stay there with me until I was in the car. Also, there were times he crossed over to the Green and asked the bus driver to wait a minute because I was locking the doors. I won’t forget what he did. He was funny, and just cool to be around.”

Clay Johnson is a superb photographer, was a storied city athlete, and was a compassionate and cool cop. He’s not wearing the police uniform anymore, or scrambling down court at breakneck speed for a thunderous dunk, but he’s still spreading kindness and joy in a world in desperate need of both, and there’s not much better than that.