A Picture Worth 1,700 Students

Writer: 
November 30, 2007
The Class of 2011 on East Campus

The Class of 2011 on East Campus. Chris Hildreth

At 10:00 on a Wednesday morning, Megan Morr and Butch Usery are standing atop an eight-ton scissor lift not far from the East Campus bus stop. It was moving, but now it won't. Won't move. Won't even start.


But today is special. It's move-in week for first-years, and the photography department has been assigned to take an aerial photo of some 1,700 members of the Class of 2011, arranged to form the numerals 2011 in front of Lilly Library on the East Campus quad. Six of the department's eight staff members will work almost all day to set up and execute the shot, scheduled for twilight, just after 8:00 tonight.For Morr and Usery, this is not an ordinary day. Both are photographers with the university's in-house photography operation. Their average day might include lugging heavy bags containing camera, lenses, flashes, and tripods around campus, but not operating heavy machinery.

There are several events during the course of the year that require long hours from the university's photographers—Homecoming, Reunions, Commencement, to name a few. But in terms of capturing a single image, this is, by far, the one that takes the most manpower and preparation, says photographer Les Todd.So while Morr waits for a repairman to come have a look at the overheated lift, Usery joins Chris Hildreth, Duke Photography's director, in piloting two more down Campus Drive. In total the job will employ five lifts—the three fifty-foot scissor lifts, as well as two sixty-foot boom lifts. One lift, positioned directly in front of the East Union building, will carry Hildreth and his camera. The other four, arranged around half of the circle between East Union and Lilly, will hold powerful spotlights on loan from New York and Chicago. Behind his back, Hildreth's colleagues posit that what really gets him going is a production of great magnitude, and taking in the scene unfolding on East Campus, that seems about right.

This is the fourth time that Hildreth and Todd have arranged such a production at Duke. The first time was in 1997. On short notice, the team located high-power spotlights and rigged up a pulley system to raise them to the top of the East Union building. They built a platform for the camera on the roof. That first year, they spelled out D-U-K-E in capital letters. Tommy Newnam, the department's office manager, remembers a day a few years back when two recent graduates visited the office and, seeing the photo, referred to it as "our" photo. They pointed to two young freshmen in the bottom right corner, along the front row of the E. "That's us," they told her. "We met that night, and now we're getting married."

In 2000, Duke administrators requested a second photo—this time of the freshman class forming the numbers "2-0-0-4." In response to popular demand, Ryan Lombardi, associate dean of students, called for a third edition in 2006 and suggested that the photo might become an annual tradition. By backing its return this year—along with the Annual Fund—he's made good on his word.

The department's five photographers, plus digital-imaging specialist Brent Clayton, spend much of the morning out on the lawn creating the outlines of a 2011 that measures more than fifty feet from bottom to top. They pound wooden stakes and mark lines with yellow caution tape, starting with a rectangle, then subdividing it and working from there to outline each numeral. It's hot out, and they soon begin to sweat.

Hildreth wants to see how the plot looks from camera height. He climbs onto the center lift and powers it up. It begins to rise, beeping as it makes its way into the air. Hildreth keeps his eyes trained on the circle. At about thirty feet, he gasps. "Oh my God," he says pointing toward the field. "There's our frickin' 'Duke' from ten years ago." Sure enough, the outlines of the letters "D-U-K-E" stand out a little greener than the surrounding grass. "The chalk must have lime in it. I can't think of anything else that would make it green up like that," he says, shaking his head.

Extended to its full height, the lift clears the roofs of the East Campus dorms. It affords a view of Durham to the East, and Duke Chapel and the medical center to the West. It also wobbles, ever so slightly.

On the ground, they continue to measure off distances, pound stakes, and lay tape, which will later be traced and replaced with fresh chalk. A guy from Sunbelt, the company that owns the lifts, comes by to make sure everything is in functioning order. Hildreth invites him to go up and check out the view. He declines. He's afraid of heights. "I'll rent 'em to you, but I won't go up in 'em."

"The real secret" to the project, Hildreth has said, "is figuring out how many bodies we can fit in each number." He now sidesteps across the base of the completed number 2. "We got twenty people across, easy," he says. The photographers line up along the left side of the 2, and take turns moving to the back of the line, counting off. "That's ten, if they squeeze," Todd says, filling the final open spot. "So that's 200 kids right here in the base of the 2." The photographers load heavy bags of lighting equipment onto each lift, and take them up in the air to get angles set.

Throughout the day, traffic around the circle is heavy, with parents still around helping students fill out their new dorm rooms. Photographer Jon Gardiner catches a couple in a van taking snapshots of the team at work, and, grinning, takes a photograph of them to add to a slide show of the project that he is creating. "Please don't use those photos," the female passenger tells him. "Our daughter would be mortified."

At 7:40 p.m., the photography team members move to their respective lifts, power up, and rise into the air around the circle. On either side of the quad, groups of first-years are gathering in small circles with their First-Year Advisory Counselors (FACs). The first-years wear white shirts with Duke spelled out in blue across the front.

Hildreth paces the circle one more time, taking a final set of light readings using a handheld meter. He directs team members to narrow a light beam by the slightest bit, or shift a lamp just a half-inch to the left. It's a tiny movement, but it makes all the difference when the light hits the ground, fifty feet below.

Just before 8:00, Hildreth mounts his lift and ascends. As darkness settles in, he gives senior Geoff Bass, co-chair of the FAC program, the signal, and Bass begins to bark commands through the bullhorn. "Bassett, Brown, Alspaugh, Pegram," he calls, "fill in the second 1." As the second 1 fills—base first, then top—he directs the second group, consisting of students from Wilson, Jarvis, Aycock, Epworth, and Giles, to start on its partner. "I always worry at this point whether there will be too many or not enough students," Morr says, watching. "But it always works out."

A mass of students obscures the outlines of the 2 and the 0, but in minutes, the borders begin to sharpen. Wandering individuals and small groups find openings and fill them. The 0 soon emerges from the mass, and the 2 follows.

Bass rings the bullhorn's siren, and FACs who've been assisting clear out. Hundreds of intimate conversations held within close proximity, almost on top of one another, echo like the sound of a thousand crickets on a summer night.

"Class of 2011, can you hear me?" Hildreth calls out through his bullhorn, sixty feet in the air. He's answered by 1,700-odd members of the class. He tells them he's going to snap photos at eight-second intervals. Ready?

The bulbs flash, and the crowd, suddenly illuminated by what Hildreth describes as enough power "to light up Cameron Indoor Stadium and the Dean Dome at the same time," lets out a loud "Oh!"

Students in the 2 begin counting to eight, like Cameron Crazies counting an opposing team's pregame stretches, and Hildreth plays along. On eight, he fires again. "Oh!"

Eight count, blink, Oh!

Eight count, blink, Oh!

Over and over.

"Own it!" he tells them.

When it's over, the mass of white T-shirts begins to disperse. Hundreds of cell phones flip open, and hundreds of blue glowing squares move silently across the darkened quad. Words return, but for a moment, it was all about the picture.