Behind the Class Photo

For staff of Duke Photography, annual photo with first-year students means a long, exhilarating day of work

Duke's Class of 2021 gathers for its group photo Wednesday evening on East Campus.
Duke's class of 2021 gathers for its group photo Wednesday evening on East Campus.

Since the first one in 1998, Chris Hildreth has been behind the lens for all of Duke’s class photos for first-year students. But the director of Duke Photography is quick to point out that there’s much more to the annual tradition than simply firing the camera.

“It’s been the Duke photo team behind all of them,” Hildreth said. “This is a team effort.”

Last Wednesday, that team effort unfolded once more. It started when the morning dew on East Campus dried and ended well after dark. Getting the photo required contributions from every member of the Duke Photography team, cooperation from the roughly 1,740-member class of 2021 and fortunate breaks with equipment and threatening thunderstorms.

“It’s high risk, high reward,” Hildreth said after getting down from a lift where he snapped the photo. “And we got a good one tonight, we got a real good one tonight.”

Here’s how the picture happened.

The staff of Duke Photography begins mapping out the numbers for the class photo.

10:30 a.m.

East Campus was quiet when members of the Duke Photography team first arrived. Hildreth carried a mug of coffee as he joined colleagues Bill Snead and Tommy Newnam in staking out the shapes of the giant numbers the students will form for the photo.

They’ve done this before and they’ve got detailed plans already drawn up, so this process wasn’t much of a worry. However, the weather was. With thunderstorms predicted for Wednesday evening, there was no guarantee the photo shoot would take place as scheduled.

“This might be all we get to do today,” Newnam said.

Duke Photography's Bill Snead paints the lines for the numbers int he class photo as storm clouds gather.
2:42 p.m.

As Snead applied the final lines of white paint, completing the shapes of the numbers, dark clouds hung overhead and thunder rumbled in the distance.

Nearby, Hildreth looked at his phone, watching red and green blobs float eastward on the radar.

If the bad weather arrived and the photo shoot got rained out – which has never happened – the make-up date would be Saturday morning. But with roughly five hours until the photo is to be taken, there’s nothing to do but keep preparing and hope for the best.

Duke's first-year students begin to gather as Duke Photography staff tests its equipment.

6:47 p.m.

The thunderstorms avoided campus and as dusk approached, the sky was filled with harmless clouds. Amid the soundtrack of beeping lifts and the chatter of the growing crowd of students, the Duke Photography team tested the effectiveness of the strobe lights mounted atop the lifts, which now stretched 60 feet into the sky. Duke football coach David Cutcliffe, the event's unofficial emcee, climbed aboard the lift he'd soon direct the students from.

Snead pointed out that a tricky part of the photo is ensuring students are lit perfectly while the lawns and Lilly Library are slightly darkened.

“And if we get a nice sunset above it, it would be great,” Snead said. “I don’t know if we’ll get it, but we’ll see.”

Duke's first-year students wait for their class photo to be taken.
7:30 p.m.

Every few minutes, another group of students clad in white T-shirts walked onto the lawn and clustered within the lines of the numerals.

“Stay within the lines, guys,” Hildreth said over the public-address system. “… We’ve got some more room on the top of the one. … Nice and tight.”

Snead and fellow Duke Photography staff members Brent Clayton, Reagan Lunn and Les Todd were atop lifts managing strobe lights. Hildreth and Cutcliffe were atop another lift, ready to make the official class photo.

Duke's first-year students cheer as their class photo is taken.

7:52 p.m.

With the students packed inside the lines of the numbers, Cutcliffe on the microphone and the sun slowly disappearing over the horizon behind Lilly Library, it was time to capture the scene.

“We’re going to go with a big cheer here … eyes up on the camera,” Cutcliffe said. “One … two … three!”

As the students let out a cheer, strobes flashed and cameras clicked.

“That’s what I’m talking about!” Cutcliffe said.

Cutcliffe walked the students through four attempts at the photo with them standing. He then guided them through three tries with them jumping.

“We need verticals, we need hang time,” Cutcliffe said. “Basketball players, we’ve got to show them the way now. Here we go!”

Once Hildreth told him he got what he needed, Cutcliffe signed off.

“I think we nailed it!” Cutcliffe said. “Good job, good job. We’re all done. We’re good. Good job 2021!”

Within minutes, the numbers dissolved and the students made their way toward Brodie Gym for a post-photo event.

Duke Photography staff members Brent Clayton, left, and Jared Lazarus, right, pack up gear.

8 p.m.

While the photo shoot was finished, the Duke Photography team’s work wasn’t. Gear had to be collected and run back to the Duke Photography office on West Campus.

But the satisfaction of a successful shoot made packing up amid the gathering darkness an easier task.

“First and foremost, it’s a sigh of relief,” Hildreth said after the shoot. “The weather and the equipment didn’t mess us up. The students participated and (Cutcliffe) kept them rolling. I kept the shutter going and we’re done. Another one in the books.”

Duke's class of 2021 on the East Campus lawn.

For more coverage and a video from the class photo, see this story.