Career with a Camera: Robert K. O'Daniell looks back at 43 years at newspaper
News-Gazette photographer Robert K. O'Daniell — known to friends and coworkers as "RK" — has captured more than 40 years' worth of Champaign-Urbana news.
He's taken photos of Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, both George Bushes and Barack Obama.
He shot the first FarmAid concert in 1985 and covered the Flyin' Illini playing in the 1989 Final Four in Seattle.
He's transitioned from developing prints in the darkroom and engraving halftones of photos for publication to staying on the cutting edge of digital photography.
After more than 43 years of shooting photos for The News-Gazette, O'Daniell retired at the end of 2012. He plans to take the occasional photo for The News-Gazette in retirement, he said.
"The last couple of weeks, it's been unnerving (to think of) not having a shift to come in to, to take photos for the community," O'Daniell said.
O'Daniell said he enjoyed the variety of working at The News-Gazette.
"One of the great things about the job is it's different every day," he said.
He started each day by working the puzzles published in the pages of The News-Gazette. Then, once he got to work, he spent his days puzzling over taking the best photos with the material available — and "trying to make something people like looking at," he said.
O'Daniell grew up in Elmhurst and came to town to attend the University of Illinois in fall 1967.
A James Scholar in physics and math, he'd had accelerated physics high school classes and one college physics class.
He told a UI professor he was bored in a basic physics class, and the professor's reply was that he needed strong basic skills.
Instead, O'Daniell bought himself a 35-mm camera and got involved with the school paper. He liked to play around with cameras, and he said his father was the type who loved to take photos on vacations.
"Back then, the Daily Illini would take anybody," O'Daniell said. "You'd show up and they'd teach you."
By the next spring, he was the one teaching others. He picked up the skills to do photomechanical engraving and by May 1969 was working Friday and Saturday nights in The News-Gazette's photo lab. He started picking up shifts to work as a photographer and within the year was working full time.
He also picked up a part-time job at Erber's Camera Shop on East Green Street in Champaign, to "support his habit" with discounts on cameras and equipment.
He was still a full-time student but found himself paying tuition to sleep through class. So he dropped out in his seventh semester at the UI and continued working full time at The News-Gazette.
His most memorable photo was when the 1989 Flyin' Illini played Indiana near the end of the regular season. Indiana had scored a three-pointer with seconds left in the game. The Illini called a timeout, then inbounded the ball with a long pass to Nick Anderson.
Anderson took a three-point shot somewhere between the halfcourt line and the three-point arc and made it. O'Daniell shot a photo of him jumping up in the air and screaming.
He said he likes shooting sports because he sees it as a puzzle.
As athletes and their coaches play a game, a photographer needs to be able to anticipate what they're going to do to be in a position to capture an image of something that "might or might not happen," O'Daniell said.
In the case of that 1989 photo, he said he knew the Illini would try to win, so he just needed to anticipate which player would receive that long pass.
He cited an old photo adage that a photographer captures a good photograph by being ready when luck happens.
And sometimes it doesn't, as was the case when he spent a day photographing the first FarmAid concert at Memorial Stadium in 1985. Then-reporter (and current News-Gazette Editor and Publisher) John Foreman had to clear a path for him so O'Daniell could change positions. He took photos of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Willie Nelson and was assigned to get a photo of the fireworks organizers planned to end the show.
Nelson decided to play as concertgoers left the stadium.
"Twenty to 30 minutes later when he finally stopped playing, they started the fireworks, to a completely empty stadium (and) a horribly ugly photo," O'Daniell said. "I was so mad. It was years, maybe 10, before I could listen to Willie Nelson again. Honestly, if he came on the radio, I changed the station or turned it off."
When he's working, O'Daniell said he tries to compose the best possible photograph with the elements available, including the light, and working it to his advantage; the subject matter, making sure it's well defined; and the background, which should either help define the subject or at least not distract the viewer.
He appreciates a documentary style of photography and tries to work with what he finds at an assignment. He doesn't even like to add light, and tries for "virtually no influence" on a subject.
O'Daniell said he's not sure what kinds of photos he'll take in retirement.
"I will continue with nature and try to do more architecture, and will be watching out for something new to draw my interest," he said.
News-Gazette Executive Editor John Beck said O'Daniell has played an important role in the paper's history.
He was chief photographer when the paper moved to offset printing in the mid-1970s, which required color photography for the first time.
"While it was the obviously the future of newspaper technology, it was really kind of hard to get it all set into place," Beck said, adding that O'Daniell was the one who figured out the technical procedures for the paper's photographers.
"He played a pretty big role in our transition into new technology," Beck said.
Beck said he's always enjoyed O'Daniell's photography, both for the paper and for his stock photography company, Prairie Boatworks.
"He's just been a pleasure to work with over all those years," Beck said.
Former photographer Mike Smeltzer worked with O'Daniell at the Daily Illini and then a few years later at The News-Gazette.
He and O'Daniell planned to attend a National Press Photographers Association conference in Kansas, at a time when Coors Beer was not available in Illinois.
"We were both of legal drinking age at this point, so it was pretty much legit," Smeltzer said.
They finally made it to Kansas; O'Daniell was driving a Porsche 914, a two-seater. The two challenged the liquor store clerk to fill the car with Coors, despite the fact that it was full of suitcases and camera equipment.
He did, using three different sizes of cans, because only tiny cans would fit in certain places.
"We came back with tons and tons of Coors beer," Smeltzer said. "It probably ruined the suspension of his car."
Smeltzer — now the director of networking at the UI — remembers that O'Daniell was the first person he knew with a computer — and his first computer teacher.
O'Daniell became a photographer at a time when they were relegated to the darkroom, making prints and engravings, he said.
"Now they're full-fledged members of the newsroom. ... He's not only survived that, but I think he's flourished in that," Smeltzer said.