Photographer paints UChicago in new light

Microbiologist Justin Kern, AB’04, PhD’10, captures evocative portraits of campus.

Photographer Justin Kern, AB’04, PhD’10, spent 10 years at the University of Chicago, passing under its arches and spires, staring out its lancet windows, striding along its cloistered walkways. But it wasn’t until he took a microbiology postdoc position at Stanford University, and set a departure date, that documenting the campus became an earnest mission.

As he wrote his thesis, he carried his camera on trips to the Regenstein LibraryRockefeller Memorial Chapel, the Reynolds Club, the Seminary Co-op bookstore, and the pub at Ida Noyes. “This is a beautiful place,” he says, “and I kind of took it for granted until I signed that letter”—his postdoc acceptance papers—“saying I was going to leave. I had about six months left, and you realize that those are the last six months you’re going to spend in a place where you’ve spent a whole decade.”

Kern moved in June to Mountain View, Calif., just down the peninsula from San Francisco. As a Stanford research fellow, he studies bacterial cell division to understand how human cells split and differentiate. A dedicated amateur photographer, he says his existence behind the camera always remained separate from his work in the lab.

“I’ve had multiple academic lives at the University of Chicago”—from undergraduate to graduate, econ major to biologist, Kern says. Whether he was vacationing out West, exploring the city, or making his way to class, “photography was a constant the whole time.”

Feeling Married to the Place

Over this past winter and spring, as his moving date approached, a profusion of new University images appeared online at Kern’s Flickr stream and on his blog—a snow-swept Harper Quad, a sparsely illuminated Wieboldt walkway, a Chicago Theological Seminarystaircase looking almost ablaze next to a row of hanging lamps.

“The ideas for these photos were nascent from when I was an undergrad walking around campus,” Kern says. “I was actually married in Bond Chapel”—to microbiology grad student Valerie Anderson, SB’04—”and had a reception in the Cloister Club. You get intimately familiar with these spaces, and then, when you go back to take a photo, it’s natural.”

‘Super-realistic’ Photos Stir Emotions

By turns spooky and resplendent, stark and effusive, the campus that emerges from Kern’s lens has a painted quality. In part, that’s his technique.

He uses a digital method called “high dynamic range,” or HDR, which combines multiple photographs and long exposures into a single composite image. Some purists object to HDR photography, but Kern, who’s now photographing his new California surroundings, believes HDR narrows the gap between what the human eye sees and what the camera can record.

“It recaptures some of the color and light and shadow, translates what you see onto the foreign language of the photographic medium,” he says. “So the photographs look painted, but they also look super-realistic.”

Among Kern’s fans is Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert, X’70, who, in a July blog post lamenting the charmless rectangularity of modern architecture, praised Kern’s photos of the University’s distinctively Gothic urban landscape.

They “made my heart quicken,” Ebert wrote. That’s precisely the response Kern says he’s looking for. “Galen Rowell, a photographic hero of mine, once wrote about how the ‘golden sieve of memory’ filters complex experience down into concentrated emotion,” Kern says, “and how photographs, when composed and produced precisely to tap into that pool of remembrance, can trigger those emotions anew.”