Commencement Here at Amherst

black and white photograph of Amherst, MA featuring Amherst College, 1800s

For the past eighteen months, I have been working to digitize the Amherst College Photographer Negative Collection 1965-2005.  For three hours at a time on a few afternoons each week, I shut myself into a windowless room in the basement of the library, its lights turned off to guarantee that background light will not affect the quality of the photographs. Methodically, I coaxed the strips of film from their protective sleeves, rested them on a sheet of plastic with a cutout for light to shine through the negatives, and lowered a sheet of rubber over them to hold the strips in place. Then I slid the sleeves one at a time across a little hole of light, over which a camera gazed down onto the images. I triggered a foot pedal when each negative appeared in the box of light, thus capturing the image. As the weeks went on, the photographs themselves began to blur together until they were one long strip of history and my afternoons were no different from the night.

This past spring, all of my efforts were validated as I watched the 198th commencement of Amherst College unfold across the first-year quad. The place was resplendent under the summer sun, its perfect lawn stretching toward the verdant hills in the distance, the red-brick first-year buildings silhouetted against the sky. Commencement is one of the most-photographed events at the College, which means that many of the images that I digitized over my time with Digital Projects were of one commencement after another. Each month, I watched a new class walk across the stage in photographs as other assistants photographed the physical programs from those same commencements, reliving the graduations of classes from our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Now I got to watch the ceremony in real life, hear the cheers, the choir, the faculty’s warm applause as each graduate received their diploma. Not only that, but the people being honored this Sunday were my dear friends and knowing firsthand how blindingly bright each of their futures will be, I was deeply moved by the ceremony’s resonance with history and its attention to the present.

Many things have remained the same about Commencement over the years, and many things have changed. The location of the ceremony itself shifted sometime in the decades between the 1980s and today. In the college photographer’s negatives, you can make out the gym in the background of the commencement:

Here’s the setting for that commencement today. The pool is to the left, so previous photograph would have been taken from the balcony of the right-hand building, facing toward the pool on the left.

Now (image my own), the commencement is on the first-year quad, but still retains all of the essential elements of its previous incarnation: families sprawled behind the graduates, a sea of black caps, an austere stage with the faculty all seated behind the podium. Since the seventies, the College has added flags representing the many citizenships of the graduating seniors and a screen to magnify the diploma hand-off for cameras in the audience.

This year, there was not a student rock band, as there was in 1968. I seem to recall an alumnus telling me the story of how that particular performance came to be, and it was something to do with the seniors being given the choice to choose the performers at their own graduation and opting for a group of their peers more in-tune with the counterculture era than the string quartet that was a typical feature.

However, my favorite part of the ceremony has remained the same: the procession, first of graduating seniors, who proceed in twos along the path toward the stage, then pause and make way for the faculty to walk between them. In all the images from the old commencements,

I was puzzled by this man, who led the faculty each year, always immaculately dressed in top hat and tailcoat, carrying some sort of halberd, and sporting a jolly grin. This year, my question was answered: he is the Sheriff of Hampshire County, and now comes out of retirement each year to tap his rod on the stage and mark the beginning of the ceremony.

All told, being able to attend a commencement after spending so much time with pictures of historical ones gave me a sense of the rich history and long lineage of which we current students are slowly becoming a small part. It felt like a pleasure and an honor to be a part of, and I look forward to walking across that same stage next year when I graduate.