Retired DelDOT Photographer Leaves 39 Years of Memories

Wed January 25, 2006 - Northeast Edition
Kate House-Layton

DOVER, DE (AP) Orange plows frozen in a whirl of snow. Construction workers stooping on a beam. Boats cutting waves on the Delaware Bay.

Whether highways, byways, bridges or marsh, state Department of Transportation photographer James T. O’Brien has captured 39 years’ worth of moments in Delaware through a lens.

At the end of 2005, he retired from his job as the department’s shutterbug, trading it in for part-time status.

In 1966, O’Brien was working at an A&P grocery store in Dover when an assistant photographer’s job at the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) opened. He had recently graduated from Dover High School and was looking for a regular job.

“I loved it from the very beginning,” he said.

O’Brien first developed his interest in photography with a camera his father won in a bingo game while in the Air Force in Japan.

He became the family photographer, shooting pictures of wherever military assignments took them.

O’Brien still keeps the first camera he used — a boxy “press style” Speed Graphics large format — in a cabinet in his office, which is cluttered with old pictures, posters and projects in the works.

Some of O’Brien’s favorite photos include aerial photos and marshes.

The aerial photos, he said, help DelDOT engineers better explain upcoming projects at public meetings.

“For the average person, it’s nice to see your property from the air, and it’s a lot easier to explain,” O’Brien said.

When it comes to snow shots, O’Brien said they’re more difficult.

“You have to go in the snow, you have to get there, and you have to find the guys and you have to get out of the vehicle, hopefully a little out of the way,” O’Brien said.

Through his lens, he’s noticed the many ways Delaware has changed.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s ending as far as traffic,” O’Brien said. “There’s more to build and more to maintain.”

Much of his work goes to the state archives, but it’s also displayed on the walls of DelDOT’s Dover headquarters and other state offices.

“It’s like my own personal gallery in each of the buildings,” O’Brien said. “You want to get your work out and be seen, it’s a big deal.”

DelDOT employee Debbie Willoughby’s cubicle in the real estate department is plastered with O’Brien’s work.

She likes each photo, from Silver Lake in Dover to a shipyard in Wilmington, for different reasons.

“He knows how to capture a picture,” Willoughby said.

Delaware Secretary of Transportation Nathan Hayward III said, “James has worked every corner of the state.”

“He knows marshes, he knows the street, he knows the rural area. He’s been to every event that you can imagine.

“He’s worked every season of the year day and night, good weather and bad.”

One of Hayward’s favorite photos, a shot of a crewman installing a pipe on a Kent County road close to the coast, hangs outside his office.

“The light on the marsh is very beautiful and the color of the earth is sort of brownish-orange and right in the middle is this bright orange DelDOT truck,” he said.

“I just love it. I’ve always liked that image.”

O’Brien said he hopes the legacy he leaves will be a visual record of the state.

“A lot of the landscape has definitely changed since ’66,” he said. “You maybe show what was there before, hopefully in a good light.”

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