At the beginning of last Fall, our office received a request from Hallie Knuffman in the Provost’s Office to take a group photo of the Dean’s Cabinet – all 10 deans, the Provost and President – and I was asked to spearhead this project.

I was excited by this opportunity because I don’t think this has ever done at Duke – I have never seen a historical photo like this and university archivist Valerie Gillispie hadn’t either.

What I didn’t realize at the time was how challenging it would be to find a Dean’s Cabinet meeting when all the Deans were actually present. In mid-Sept. one of the Deans couldn’t make the meeting and then in the beginning of October two deans were out, and we kept pushing back the shoot date every two weeks until their next meeting. This went on and on until February when it was decided it wasn’t going to happen in the Spring and to set our sights on the first meeting of the academic year when all of the Deans should be in attendance, August 26.

I’ve done hundreds of School of Medicine departmental and divisional group photos, as well as group photos with every professional school on campus. Usually these are taken on steps and done in a formal fashion, with the participants lined up like soldiers, and several frames later (perhaps two minutes), everyone is on their way.

A tradition group shot of people arranged on the steps of a building

I didn’t want to approach the Dean’s Cabinet this way. I wanted to make it special and different, relaxed and contemporary.

I’ve been a big fan of Annie Leibovitz’s work for more than 25 years and I admire her group photos in Vanity Fair. They seem so timeless and effortless, though there’s no doubt the opposite is true and photo assistants, publicity handlers, and furniture/props people are involved in some way before or during the creation of this image.

An Annie Leibovitz Vanity Fair photo that inspired this project

But as critical as the end result was the experience – we wanted the shoot to be smooth and efficient, so the Deans’ Cabinet could get on with the important business of the day. Hallie had told me we could have 15 minutes and possibly up to 30 minutes for the photo session. I felt confident we could do the photo in 20 minutes but felt like we could do it in 15 if we had to. I had photographed a group of Heart Center leadership several years before with a similar approach in mind and the photo took 15-20 minutes – most of this time was spent on posing the doctors to look more relaxed. My director, Blyth Morrell, asked me to take no more than 15 minutes of their time, and I felt like we could compromise a little bit on the styling and still create a natural looking arrangement with relaxed poses in this amount of time. 

A photo of doctors posed in a lab used as inspiration for this project

I had scouted multiple locations near the Allen Board Room that we could potentially use for the photo to look at space, light, etc. and had come up with the Gothic Reading Room and Brodhead Center. But neither of those spaces were going to work on the first day of classes, so Blyth suggested we do the shoot in the Karsh Alumni Center’s Moyle Board Room. I was nervous in July and August as Claudia Attarian with Alumni Affairs kept me updated on the furniture delays from England, but a week before the shoot, the tables, chairs and couches arrived and we were finally able to look at all the elements together – space, furniture, and sunlight – as well as figure out where the President, Provost, and each Dean would be positioned in the photo.

A sketch of how everyone will be positioned in the photo

Then, five days before the shoot, Claudia (on behalf of director of operations Scott Greenwood) asked us to move the shoot to the atrium so the Deans could have their meeting in the Moyle Board Room – the setup and breakdown of the lighting equipment would be disruptive to the meeting so we needed a different space for the photo.

We hadn’t really considered this space before and I immediately liked the brighter, airy space, though the rays of sunlight at 10am looked like they could become problematic and create uneven light across the group. The forecast was showing rain all weekend and 98% cloud cover for Monday so I liked my chances.

On Saturday morning, Claudia graciously opened up the Karsh Center for my colleague Megan and I – she photographed the Price family earlier that morning in the Moyle Board Room. We then set up four large softboxes and experimented with different furniture arrangements – two chairs and a loveseat, two loveseats, until we settled on five chairs near the center of the room.

The night before the shoot, I rehearsed running through a quick 30 second intro to what we were trying to accomplish – a natural looking group picture in which everyone looked relaxed in their individualized pose. I showed a Vanity Fair photo as a reference, though I knew this would bring laughter because one of the participants was lying across the floor. I assured them I wouldn’t ask anyone to do this.

On Monday at 7:30am, I fine tuned the lighting, tethered my camera to my laptop for immediate feedback, and reset the furniture that the cleaners had put back.

At 9am, we began doing test shots. I had sketched out where each Dean would sit or stand and we had several stand ins: Blyth, my colleagues Sam Huntley (web developer/information designer) and Caroline Pate (web developer/information designer), Claudia and her colleagues Courtney Hill and Emily Deahl, Hallie and her teammate Mary Greenway. I tweaked the lighting for several minutes – it was looking too flat and I wanted more ratio between light and shadow on the faces – until it was to my liking. The skies outside were still overcast but my anxiety rose as clouds were starting to reveal some sunlight. Blyth suggested we swap in three stools instead for two of the chairs to create some height differences, which I favored to make the group appear less rigid and formal.

A test shot with volunteers occupying the positions of the Deans

Shortly after, my colleagues Megan, Julie Schoonmaker (video manager), and Bill Snead (digital assets manger and Photoshop master) arrived from capturing exterior drone footage of the Karsh Alumni Center, to be used in a video announcing its opening.

Most of the Deans had arrived several minutes before 10am and Hallie asked if I wanted to begin arranging people. I’ve made this mistake before – as soon as people are sitting down for the photo they become more anxious and impatient as the shoot progresses. I said they should keep talking and catching up for a couple more minutes. By 10am we started – turning Dean Ravi from right to left, angling Dean Steelman to the camera, moving Dean Broome several inches to her left, shooting several frames as we kept making adjustments. The clouds had parted by now and a ray of sunlight was creating an unwanted halo effect on Dean Klotman’s hair. I stopped shooting and looked at the lighting on my laptop with Bill, and he assured me he could swap her hair from another frame in which the exposure was good.

A behind the scenes shot of the photo being taken showing camera and light setup

I kept shooting, all the while Blyth, Hallie, Sam, Bill and myself helping to fine tune the grouping and poses. About ¾ into the shoot things visibly gelled – expressions, poses, body language, all coming together – and 48 frames later it was a wrap. The Deans, President Price and Provost Kornbluth crowded around my laptop to look at the photo and everyone seemed happy with the end result as Julie captured several behind the scenes moments with her phone.

The final Dean's Cabinet photo

Blyth looked at her watch and was smiling as she declared I did it in 15 minutes. I felt good, relieved that we had finally pulled off this picture I had envisioned and planned for months.