Bob Brown

This week we talked with Bob Brown, veteran photographer of 50 years for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Brown has had one of the most prolific photojournalism careers in Virginia. The image that often defines a given cultural, or political, moment in Virginia is often accompanied by Brown’s credit line. 

Below, Brown talks about the change he has seen over the last 50 years in the industry, his first assignment for RTD, his most memorable photo and what makes news photography its own unique art form. Questions | William Lineberry

I’m senior photographer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where I started to work in 1968 following ten years working with motion picture film in television.  I always liked still photography better. I was trained in still and motion picture in college and always thought that if I could get one photo that captured the moment, or told the story, it was so much better than a film or video of the same event. I love covering politics (strange, huh?), having covered the Virginia General Assembly since 1970 and having covered national political conventions and inaugurations since 1984. I also love traveling the state with Bill Lohmann for our “Back Roads series,” some of which are now published in two books, “Back Roads, People, Places and Pie Around Virginia” and “On The Back Roads Again, More People, Places and Pie Around Virginia.” When the first one went to the third printing, the editors let us do another one.

On working at RTD for 50 years and the changes seen at the paper and throughout the industry:

When I started at the Richmond Newspapers in 1968, we were publishing two papers, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Richmond News Leader, which was an evening paper. Each paper had separate reporters and editors, but photographers shot for both. On news and sporting events, we would have to make sure enough photos were shot and printed for both. Also, the paper that published first, got the first pick of the photos, so the News Leader would get first look at a morning press conference or sporting event’s photos but would have to take whatever was left over from a late afternoon or night event.

The photo staff was all-male when I joined and stayed that way for a while, but Alexa Welch Edlund was one of the first woman to be hired and she is still shooting for us. Speaking of change, the only women editors were in the “Women’s Section.” Now, our executive editor is Paige Mudd, who began as an intern and worked her way up to the top spot in just a few years.

There was one photographer who was still using 4×5 cameras, when I got there, though most of us were shooting 35mm Nikon and Leica cameras and I remember the first digital camera we got–a beast that cost $16,000.  I used it to shoot Clinton’s first inauguration and it was great not having to change film every 36 shots. The photos were not as good a quality as film and continued to be for some time, but the convenience of not having to process film, make prints, etc. made up for the lack of initial quality.

Now, digital cameras are capable of incredible results as far as color and extended exposure capabilities that allow photos to be made almost in the dark that would have been impossible with film. I retired my film cameras several years ago, but still use the lenses, with adapters on several of my digital cameras.

The digital age has made life easier as far as getting photos and transmitting, but with a 24-hour news cycle, the deadlines are NOW!  I have often used my iPhone to shoot and email photos back to our website. Quite different from a couple of years, or decades, back.

On first assignment for RTD:
I think my first assignment for the paper was to get a weather photo. It had rained most of the day, but then stopped mid-afternoon, so I walked to the Capitol, found a nice big puddle and photographed the reflection of the equestrian statue of George Washington that stands in Capitol Square. I think it ran 3 columns on B1.

On most memorable photo taken for RTD:
I would have to say the photo I took on the first day of cross-town busing of school children in August of 1970. I went to Church Hill and saw a bus ready to pull out from a street corner, ran over and got a photo of a child looking out the window of the bus with just his eye and part of his head visible. On the side of the bus was Richmond Public Schools. The light was very low because of the early hour and I remember I shot either 1/30th or 1/60th of a second with the 24mm lens wide open to 2.8. The bus pulled away before I could get the child’s name or where it was headed.  I won several awards with that photo, including first place in the National Press Photographers annual contest.  I always wondered who that kid was and how his day went and though when we recently published the photo again and requested anyone with information to contact us, we had several people say that they were the one, we never confirmed it.

On news photography as an art:
News photography is definitely an art, just as all forms of photography.  The difference in news photography and other forms of photography is that the photojournalist often must be able to size up a situation quickly and decide angles, lens, lighting, exposure, etc. that will tell the story and then make sure anyone featured has their proper name and title or relationship spelled correctly.  Quite often, a potential photo will appear in front of you and if you don’t have your camera ready, it’s gone, always be ready with at least one camera set for exposure and light balance. I usually have a camera around my neck, or on the front seat, while I’m driving just in case I see a possible photo.

I think the job of the news photographer is to record history, so readers, living or yet unborn, can benefit from the image.

On what photography has given him on a personal level:

Being a photojournalist for the last 50 years has been a great ride. I’m so glad I got in the business when I did: transitioning from black and white to color film and then from film to digital, to be an eyewitness to history from a front-row seat, to be able to have the freedom to record that history in my own way, to travel all over Virginia and many other states and even as far as Jordan on assignment to meet and befriend people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds while telling their story. There have been times that the job was not fun, but not that often.

As my wife likes to tell me, quoting a line from a Dire Straits song. ”That ain’t workin’ !!“ I remember the first time I met her father, an “old Richmond family “ man, who asked what I did and after I told him I took pictures, he said, ”But what do you do for a living?”

As I said before, it’s been a great ride and at 80 years old, it’s still fun and I plan on continuing doing what I love as long as my knees hold out and then some!