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Behind the flash
Chapel with students in the foreground.

Behind the flash

15 years. Countless changes. One campus photographer.

Photos by

Unless you frequent campus or have an eye for bylines, you might not recognize the name John Solem. But if you’ve been on campus at any point over the last 15 years, chances are you’ve seen him or rather, he’s seen you—through his camera lens.

For the past decade and a half, Solem has been UMass Amherst’s go-to photographer. Originally starting with this very magazine, his work now extends to capturing a variety of events, people, and places within the many schools and colleges on campus. I caught up with him on a foggy morning under the W. E. B. Du Bois Library to learn more about what he does, what he’s seen, what’s changed, and what’s stayed the same.

Chapel with students walking by.
It looked staged but wasn't

2021, Outside W. E. B. Du Bois Library
Some of my favorite photos have come from moments that were entirely unexpected. I was taking in the busy nature of campus life. I noticed these students sitting on the benches and then I saw the biker coming toward me. With most modern cameras, you’re able to take multiple shots in rapid succession, so I used that tool, eager to see what I could preserve from this moment—one that looked staged but wasn’t.

Human head in a plastic bubble with a tube.
Some contraption for monitoring oxygen

2014, Physical Activity and Health Laboratory
This was taken under the supervision of [renowned kinesiologist and professor emerita] Dr. Patty Freedson. I had a lot of fun lighting this in a way that made it a little more mysterious than it was—which, if memory serves, was some contraption for monitoring oxygen …

Back of van with doors open showing a colorful suitcase.
I saw an awesome suitcase

2016, international student orientation
On this particular day, I saw an awesome suitcase depicting a colorful cartoonish scene of the New York City skyline. The luggage in this vehicle belonged to newly-arrived international students who were about to be driven to their new campus housing.

UMass Magazine: What is your favorite part of your job?

John Solem: I have a lot of gratitude. I have access to all these people and they are okay with me being there. There’s trust. It’s like there’s this assumption that I’m not there “to take”—just to observe. And the connections I get to make with people.

What is the biggest change you’ve seen in your time here?

It’s too easy to just say buildings. Though they were necessary, and the science buildings really brought UMass to a different level—attracting good faculty and students. But, from a cultural perspective, I have seen a change in how vocal kids are. So much has been driven by social media, so many more voices calling for change on and off campus through protests and activist groups. It’s so inspiring to see, and I am honored to get to capture the changes and chronicle the progress happening at UMass.

What has remained the same?

The students are still awesome. I can’t tell you how many times I am driving through campus, and I see students and their energy is so positive. They come here to better themselves, because they have a love of education, and to better their career opportunities. Even through the pandemic, the students that were on campus had this positivity and hope. It was heartwarming to see they were going to keep moving forward despite all the challenges.

What has surprised you the most?

The variety of things I get to work on. I had a hunch when I took this job that there would be some variety, but there was no way I would have known back then how much there is here. I’ve gotten to attend a presidential inauguration, wade through snapping turtle-infested waters, follow a UMass professor through a swamp in the everglades, and travel to meet with some prominent UMass donors. There is also variety when it comes to the way I capture things. I need to do a shoot of the Old Chapel every season, so I have to find ways to approach that to make it new each time—and sometimes that means literally approaching it from a new angle with a ladder, from a rooftop, and hopefully someday soon, with a drone.

Is there anything unique about doing shoots for UMass that is different from other places?

So, my job is to show UMass in the best light, which is usually fairly easy. Most of the time the people and the campus look really good. And, of course, as a photographer I am drawn to beauty. But there are sometimes when you have to consider how to balance capturing the truth and what “looks” best. There is a beauty in that honesty.

Person pulling open large metal door revealing a missile.
This was another surreal scene

2018, Pedro Ramos ’90, Florida
This was another surreal scene. On a trip to the Florida Everglades for UMass Magazine, I had no idea what was coming when Pedro Ramos ’90 (the subject of the article) started to pull open the heavy sliding doors (I was feeling a little guilty for not helping him, but he was smiling while opening it, so I figured he was okay without my help). Make no mistake, I know what missiles are for, but for me this was such a cinematically beautiful moment. Who knew there were missile silos in the Everglades?

Three people throwing a fourth person into the air in front of a wooden structure.
There was a spontaneous celebration

2016, Professor Peggi Clouston with Wood Mechanics and Timber Engineering Building and Construction Technology students
I was invited to photograph the instructors and students who participated in and completed the building of a timber grid shell in front of the Fine Arts Center (now the Randolph W. Bromery Center for the Arts). Near the end of this assignment, there was a spontaneous celebration tossing Professor Peggi Clouston into the air.

Brown cow following a person up a grassy hill.
Saw this cow following her owner

2015, farmer and his cow, Maple Valley Creamery
I took this on a shoot for the summer 2015 issue of UMass Magazine. I got a nice tour of the Maple Valley Creamery and saw this cow following her owner. I had never seen such a thing.

Tall man in suit gripping UMass branded basketball.
Most of my childhood involved jumping

2012, Julius Erving ’86 on a hotel roof, Springfield, Mass.
Most of my childhood involved jumping—jumping fences, lawn chairs, couches, anything really. During that time Julius Erving ’86 reigned supreme in professional basketball and was known for his leaping ability. In 2012, he was in town for an event at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., and agreed to a brief photoshoot atop the hotel where he was staying. I absolutely couldn’t believe I got to meet Julius Erving, and—for me—it had nothing to do with basketball or UMass. It was shaking hands (what a crushing handshake!) with someone from my distant past whom I idolized and who I’m sure enjoyed being airborne as much as I did.

John, what’s your favorite?

  • Camera: Leica Q2
  • Type of shoot: Job fairs or poster sessions
  • Place to shoot on campus: Integrative Learning Center
  • Photography accessory: Wireless flash trigger


Maroon-colored plant specimen

2017, Bob Wilce Arctic Algae Herbarium, Morrill 4
This is a specimen of arctic algae collected by professor emeritus Robert Wilce who began his career as a biologist on an arctic expedition in 1954.

John Solem


Open drawer with cards cataloged inside.

2016, SCUA, W. E. B. Du Bois Library
I went through these drawers to find something visually interesting for the Contents page in the spring 2017 issue of UMass Magazine and in the process, I found “God.”

John Solem


Revolutionary war reenactors on the field by the campus pond

2015, Revolutionary War reenactment, Campus Pond
Taken during a re-enactment of the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill. The event was a photo opportunity for participants in the New England Camera Club Council 70th annual conference that someone in the news office told me about. There was no way I was going to miss it. I thought the mix was interesting here with the Old Chapel in the background, the Revolutionary War re-enactors in the middle, the puff of gun smoke, and then just a little out of focus there’s a digital camera and a (pretty nice-looking) hearing aid.

John Solem