The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia governors come and go, but Bob Brown’s camera has captured their history for half a century

Retiring Richmond Times-Dispatch photographer Bob Brown, center, poses with Virginia's current and former governors at the Capitol in Richmond in January. (Steve Helber/AP)
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RICHMOND — It’s probably not true that Bob Brown traded tomato plants with Thomas Jefferson or sipped bourbon with Abraham Lincoln, though you might hear such tales around Virginia’s Capitol.

But it is a fact that Brown began photographing the General Assembly for the Richmond Times-Dispatch so long ago, almost half the current members of the House of Delegates hadn’t even been born.

Since 1970, Brown has been a near-constant presence in the halls of Jefferson’s Capitol — neck slung with cameras, Canon raised to his eye for a quick shot of lawmakers huddling, scratching, yawning, guffawing. Governors come and go — 14 in the past 52 years — but Brown is as constant as the rotunda’s Houdon statue of George Washington.

At least until the end of the month, when the 84-year-old photojournalist says he’ll retire.

His announcement this week drew speeches on the floors of the House and the Senate, where lawmakers quickly introduced special resolutions honoring Brown.

“He is just like those portraits of former speakers around the chamber,” House Clerk Paul Nardo said a few days later, gesturing at the procession of paintings that lend a sense of history to the House. “Bob’s been a fixture in this institution.”

In today’s fractious times, when politicians often depict the media as an enemy, it might be hard to imagine the kind of stature and goodwill Brown enjoys on both sides of the aisle in Richmond. But many lawmakers say they worry about the loss of Brown’s ever-present lens as regional Virginia news outlets make deep cuts in coverage, including at the Times-Dispatch — though Brown says he was not downsized.

It’s not just news that has driven his iconic status, though. Brown has made a cottage industry of skewering lawmakers, lobbyists and reporters with candid photos that he prints out and gussies up with humorous captions.

The Brown-labeled pictures — and there have been thousands over the decades — paper the walls of the Capitol press room: “Nice party last night,” an elderly lawmaker says in one invented caption. “Really?” says a colleague, wearing an American flag tie. “Was I there?”

A long-serving Democratic senator sits with eyes shut, fingers steepled as if in prayer: “… And may all the Republicans be gone when I open my eyes. Amen …”

It’s gentle ribbing — mostly — and photo subjects are always glad to be handed a Brown Original (except for those included in a long-running feature called “Pick of the Week,” which involves noses).

“I’ve got a stack — a stack! — of pictures that he took with me with other people and put funny captions on, and I cherish those,” said Sen. William M. Stanley (R-Franklin). “He made us not take ourselves too seriously.”

“He took some really memorable stuff — I mean he caught people sometimes at their best and sometimes not so hot,” said Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), whose legislative career reaches all the way back to 1976 but is still shorter than Brown’s tenure in the Capitol.

“It’s the end of an era,” said Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar, another relative newbie, having started in 1974. A stickler for procedure, Schaar has had run-ins with Brown, who enjoys behind-the-scenes access on par with staffers. “He knows this place inside and out, and all the players,” Schaar said. “He sees it all. It goes in one ear and stops.”

“I thought California would tumble into the sea or the Appalachian Mountains would, you know, be eroded down to become flat plains before Bob Brown would retire,” U.S. senator and former governor Tim Kaine (D) said this week in a video tribute to Brown on the Times-Dispatch website.

Every time a Virginia governor is inaugurated, Kaine said, all the former governors gather for a group photo — and then invite Brown to join them. “Virginia governors, we think of Bob Brown as kind of part of the family,” he said.

Six former governors participated in the video tribute, with Democrat Ralph Northam offering to share a glass of Jameson and Republican George Allen calling Brown “a friend and an institution.”

“You came out one morning and took a picture of our dog Sparky going out and picking up the newspaper. I’m glad he didn’t attack you that morning,” former governor Jim Gilmore (R) said, calling Brown “the key recorder of Virginia history.”

When Brown began chronicling Virginia government, schools were largely segregated, and rural Democrats had an iron grip on power. “Republicans in the Senate could have fit into a phone booth,” Brown said recently.

Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax), one of the longest-serving members of the House, was elected in 1982 when Brown was already an old veteran. “He taught me everything I know,” Plum joked this week, reminiscing with Brown in the back of the chamber.

In those days, floor sessions routinely ran until midnight or later because of since-abandoned rules that produced debate on every bill. Lawmakers would literally turn back the hands of a wall clock, Plum said, to avoid hitting procedural deadlines as debate dragged on.

“And you couldn’t take a nap because he’d take your picture,” Plum said.

By the end of one 25-hour “day,” Brown said, “the House looked like the backroom at Bliley’s Funeral Home.”

A native of the rural area around Lexington, Va., Brown went to work for a Richmond television station in 1958 and joined the newspaper 10 years later. His cowboy boots, rakish goatee and rimless glasses stand out in the staid corridors of Official Richmond. He can talk firearms with a security guard, brings heirloom tomato plants to anyone who wants them and plays a mean guitar.

Times-Dispatch columnist Bill Lohmann — who wrote about his colleague’s retirement this week — has spent years traveling Virginia with Brown for a popular series about life along the state’s byways. “I’m always amazed when we’re deep into the countryside, far from Richmond, and he starts telling me about some diner around the next bend and how he stopped there for pie decades ago and then we get around the bend and, sure enough, there’s the diner,” Lohmann said via email. “But [what] really amazes me is when we walk in and someone recognizes him.”

What really amazes Steve Helber, who has technically been a competitor for 40 years as a Richmond-based photographer for the Associated Press, is Brown’s constant energy and enthusiasm. “I usually just follow him around,” joked Helber — who assembled the video tributes from governors.

Don Baker, a former longtime Richmond correspondent for The Washington Post, said he can “still see him sitting cross-legged on the floor, patiently waiting for the shot.” Baker is a few years older, but to do that at Brown’s age of 84 — “I’d be writhing in cramps,” he said.

So why is he retiring now? It’s not fatigue, Brown said. It’s just a matter of going out on his own terms — “and not feet-first or in handcuffs,” he said.

Earlier this week, both the House and Senate gave Brown standing ovations. In each case, he smiled calmly, then went right back to taking photos.

Cruising the back wall of the House chamber a short time later, Brown paused to show a reporter some images he’d taken that morning of a tunnel being dug from the Capitol to a new parking garage. “They found a 150-year-old pipe that’s still carrying water to all of east Richmond,” Brown said.

Any other historic artifacts down there? “They’ve got people out there looking,” he said, then gave a wry smile. “They did find one of my old business cards.”

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