History through the lens: Veteran photographer retires after 36 years

December 21, 2017 at 7:05 pm Leave a comment

By Jen Vogelsong

After nearly four decades of photographing the faces and events of Penn State, Darrell Peterson is trading project management in the studio for projects around the house. He is retiring in December but shared some of the favorite images he took during his 36-year career in this photo gallery.

Alan Brechbill, president of Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, said Peterson has photographed the organization’s history, and that institutional memory won’t be easily replaced. “(Darrell) knows us so well and is so proud of this place,” Brechbill said. “He made it a passion to paint us in the best light possible.”

Darrell Peterson

Over the years, Peterson has gone up in the Life Lion helicopter to take aerial photographs and scrubbed into ORs to document unusual cases for educational and research purposes.

His most memorable work, Peterson said, involves children. “There’s bad memorable, like when you have to photograph non-accidental injuries for a patient’s record, and good memorable, like when I get to take photos for Children’s Miracle Network and Four Diamonds,” he said.


Born in Erie, Peterson moved to Lebanon County with his family when he was in high school. After taking some accounting courses in college for a year, he quit and worked a string of jobs that ranged from convenience store manager to flower delivery driver. When he went back to school to major in the sciences, and courses he needed weren’t open, he filled the hole in his schedule with a photography class.

“I enjoyed photography and, after taking an organic chemistry class, realized I wasn’t that good at memorizing material,” Peterson said. “I’m more of a hands-on doer, so I shifted to the communications media program with a concentration in photography.”

After earning his degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Peterson completed a summer internship at Penn State College of Medicine. He then managed a camera shop for six months until a job as a photography technician opened up at the College of Medicine in 1981.

He spent his days developing photos in a basement darkroom at the intersection of the College of Medicine and the Medical Center. Peterson next got a job on Penn State’s Middletown campus, where he worked for 13 years, then his previous job reopened on the Hershey campus.

Darkrooms morphed into digital photography, and the hours Peterson used to spend developing film, making prints and creating components for posters turned into more time behind the camera.

The Medical Center and College of Medicine were growing, and there were more faces for him to photograph: more medical students, more residents, more new employees. The work came in waves, with seasonal predictability: physician assistant students in May, right after graduation, new residents in June, followed by medical students in July and nursing students in August.

Ken Smith, a retired Penn State Health photographer who worked with Peterson for at least 15 years, said they balanced each other out. “I was more about getting things in and out and getting the work done, but Darrell was more of a perfectionist,” he said. “He would always take the time to retouch something. He likes to get things exactly right.”

“When you’re out shooting, you’re constantly thinking – of camera settings, angles, accommodating the particular location and situation you’re in,” Peterson explained. “A lot of things take more time than people realize.”


And then there were the events to cover: ceremonies, celebrations and news. Dwight Davis, College of Medicine associate dean for admissions and student affairs, said Peterson has done a “wonderful job telling the ‘picture story’ of our students” and archiving their many activities and formal ceremonies.

“(Darrell) has the talent of blending into the environment, so most of the time we are unaware of his presence,” Davis said. “He is the ultimate professional, and the College of Medicine has been well served by his outstanding work over the years.”

Kathy Law, vice president of nursing, perioperative services at Hershey Medical Center, said Peterson was always available to record the events she coordinated. “One of the things I truly appreciated about Darrell was that he could Photoshop anything,” she said.


Carolyn Powell, human resources coordinator at Penn State Health, added that Peterson was always quick to respond to her requests for Employee of the Month photos. “He has been very professional and a pleasure to work with,” she said. “Someone is going to have very large shoes to fill.”

Much of Peterson’s time is spent in a closet-sized office next to the studio, fielding phone calls and email requests to dig up old photos or take new ones. He juggles the scheduling alongside his photo editing and cataloging with the help of two large computer monitors and a good playlist of ‘60s and ‘70s classic rock.

The biggest challenge Peterson has faced in his career came during the past two years. With his co-worker Smith’s retirement and the continued growth of the organization, the volume of his work grew exponentially.

“I work for everybody,” he said. “At times, it’s hard to keep up.”

As his final day of on the job approaches, Peterson keeps thinking of more things that must be done before he leaves. Procedures that have lived in his head for years must be written down for a junior videographer/photographer and the next person to join the photo and video team. The camera and lenses that have been in near-constant use for the past several years must be sent out for service. And portraits to be taken once he’s gone must still be scheduled.

“I feel lucky,” Peterson summed up. “This job let me use my creative talents and meet a huge variety of people. I’d like to think that my biggest contribution was presenting the Medical Center and College of Medicine in a positive light with some high-quality imagery.”

Entry filed under: Features, Profiles. Tags: , , .

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