Personnel Profile: Robert Durell

Robert Durell, the photographer behind the current “Decade Under the Dome” photo exhibit in the Capitol Basement, does much more than take pictures: He tells stories.  The former L.A. Times photojournalist met up with me at the Capitol this week for a quick chat about his new display and the 10 years of work behind it. See page B3 for some of these shots. For more information, go to Robert’s website:

Tell us about your photo exhibit, how’d it come to be?
It came to be because I thought it was just about the right time. I’d been here in Sacramento 10 years for the LA Times and decided to take a different path. I left the Times and became independent; still working for the LA Times, the New York Times, Washington Post, lots of media outlets.  

I was looking back over my photos and sorting through them I saw there is enough here for an exhibit. I thought this is a good retrospective for the last ten years. Looking through them I thought I would be a little depressed over the current state of political affairs, but actually I was kind of uplifted. In the pictures down at the free exhibit you’ll see that there’s a lot of interaction between Republicans and Democrats, which gives me hope. I found more hope looking through the pictures than I did depression. It was just time to take a look back at what I’d done here.

So how has the journalistic landscape changed over the years?
The Internet made people much more aware of their visual image and their visual persona. When I came here in 1999, you kind of had free reign, people weren’t very aware. But when I stopped full time with the LA Times in 2009, people had handlers, at press conferences the lighting was better, and a lot of that is Arnold.  

When Arnold came here he brought lighting crews wherever he went, so they ramped up the visual aspect. The Internet made people very wary of their images being taken so they were always a little more guarded, and that’s the major difference.

How’s freelancing?
Freelancing has done very well. The thing I’m shocked at is the Fortune 500 type clients who tell me, ‘just go out.’ No direction at all, they just tell me to photograph as if I was photographing a news story and see whatever develops. No guidelines at all. I had more guidelines when I went out to photograph a story for a newspaper. It is very odd, and it has happened three different occasions. They say turn in, edit what you like, we don’t even want to see your edit. It’s stunning.

Clients want real, authentic photos, nothing posed. I think that society kind of craves authenticity and reality, which is what I deliver. They never want me to set anything up. Just let it roll – which can be a disaster if you don’t know what you’re doing.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to get a photo?
In the last ten years the craziest thing was for a photo taken one evening the Capitol was on lockdown by orders of Speaker of the Assembly Herb Wesson until a budget was passed. It’s a picture of Republicans and Democrats sitting on the porch on the portico, the second floor portico, smoking cigars.  

That night, they were locked in, and I smelled cigar smoke so I kind of wandered over there, I didn’t want to tip my hand. I saw what they were doing, I casually went outside, grabbed the longest lens I had, went across to the parking garage, and shot pictures from the parking garage. I sent them back to the paper before I went back onto the floor as if nothing had happened. We [the reporters] were some of the few people who could go in and out of the building. But that was by far the craziest.

Tell us about the Susan Kennedy photo.
It was in 2009. The LA Times, who I still freelance for, wanted pictures of Kennedy because she was chief of staff and they were doing a big piece on her and they said follow her around. I said to Susan, ‘I want to shadow you wherever you go, whatever you do, and I understand private meetings are off limits.’  

She told me she had a lot of private meetings but that I could follow her around. I asked her what she’d be doing then and she said she’d be talking to the staff out in the smoking tent. I asked, ‘Do you mind if I come out with you?’ and she said, ‘Oh yes, not a problem.’  

I wasn’t obtrusive and I basically hung back, she knew I was there. And she did what she seems to do all the time when she’s talking to aids and contemplating and talking on the phone, she lights up a cigar as if it were her home. She was very relaxed and unguarded and a lot of people I know have many thoughts about her and but she was amazingly open in letting me shoot whatever I wanted.

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