The Man Behind the Pictures

by Zeke Turner | 10/4/06 5:00am

Mention the name "Joseph Mehling" to any Dartmouth student and a confused grin will wash over their face. In his 13th year as College Photographer, Mehling '69 is still relatively unknown to the student body -- but his pictures are a different story. At a time in Dartmouth's history when the school and its image are evolving aggressively toward political correctness and away from tradition, the work of someone like Mehling is becoming extremely important. Lucky for most of us, we don't have to reconcile this dichotomy from behind a camera as Mehling does every day.

A full-time employee during three seasons of the year, Mehling can be seen pacing the halls of the library, crossing the Green or lurking around the Hopkins Center. All this in the hope that he'll find the right light, the right posture and the right image to capture Dartmouth in one burst of his shutter.

"It has to do with seeing our world and showing it to other people," he says, lifting a spoonful of Collis tomato soup to his cleanly shaven face. It is safe to assume that when Mr. Mehling says "our world," he means Dartmouth. An alumnus of the college himself, Mehling has been in love with Dartmouth for the better part of four decades. "I'll still see something that I've never seen before," he tells me.

Since Mehling's time as a student, Dartmouth has been a picture of change. He remembers wearing a beanie during his freshman fall. "Any upperclassmen could say, 'Hey you, carry this couch for me,'" he says, disclosing that he tried to beat the system by ditching his beanie (a move that backfired miserably). Such blatant abuse of freshmen isn't allowed today. However, this tradition was just the sort of thing that was celebrated, "when Dartmouth was all male, a much smaller place and not as concerned about its image or its ranking in U.S. News and World Report."

But these changes in character and form don't keep Mehling from remembering why he loves Dartmouth. "Anyone who's here knows we're not Harvard, and we don't want to be." He pauses to wipe his mouth. "Jim Wright says that."

Some argue that Dartmouth is going soft. People blame the administration for killing tradition with their left hand, at the expense of a "real Dartmouth education." But if a "real Dartmouth education" means making people feel unwelcome and excluded, then it has no place in the 21st century and no place in New Hampshire.

The only thing that upsets students and alumni more than the erasure of tradition is the sculpture of Dartmouth's image. Don't know what I'm talking about? Come see the "One Dartmouth" poster I have hanging in my room. As students, our stomachs turn when we see types of pictures that grace the covers of scores of admissions catalogues across the country; we think we are so clever when we notice a picture of the traditional, idyllic college scene that has been injected with faces of different colors creating an impossible display of diversity. We laugh at the thought that a picture like this wasn't staged. "I understand why," Mehling says when I ask him about this type of picture. "It's because they're trying to promote the way Dartmouth is. But if you look around it's not very hard."

And he's exactly right. Why can't we accept that Dartmouth is more diverse today than it has been in two centuries? We as students all have a different idea of what Dartmouth looks like, but can't we allow ourselves a moment to be proud of what Dartmouth actually does look like? This year, more women came to Dartmouth than ever before and our commitment to diversity has remained strong. Don't we deserve a pat on the back?

After all, one tradition that remains the strongest is the dedication of alumni. I'm willing to bet that for centuries to come Dartmouth's alumni will think fondly of their time at the Big Green.

Last week, after my interview with Mehling, I was looking over a friend's shoulder as he sorted photos into folders on his laptop. He stopped to show me a couple of his pictures that he was most proud of. One showed himself on a toilet, clutching a Corona bottle, while another showed his parents in warm embrace. The last one he showed me was a wintertime shot of Dartmouth Hall framed in a cascade of ivory dust. When I asked him about it he said, "I don't know. It's just a nice picture of Dartmouth. I got it off the website." That photo was taken in February of 2004 by Joseph Mehling -- it's one of his favorites, too.

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