Melanie Luebs put on her cap and gown, plugged her computer into the TV and settled in to watch the virtual graduation with her family.
When her name came on screen, they slowed down the action to cheer and savor the moment.
It was by no means the ceremony they had envisioned over the last four years. But just a day earlier, the University of Colorado graduate got a chance to make some memories of the procession that never was — at home.
Jennifer Pottheiser, a commercial photographer who has worked with athletes and celebrities — from Drake and Taylor Swift to Serena Williams and LeBron James — stopped by Luebs’ Long Branch house for a project on the college class of 2020. Luebs, who uses a wheelchair, posed in front of the house with her family and service dog, Laramie, surrounded by signs and banners marking her achievement.
Pottheiser’s project, which respects social distancing norms, embraces the stoop portraiture genre of photography that has become popular during the coronavirus pandemic. Her pictures not only commemorate the milestone, but also chronicle the remarkable time in which college graduates find themselves heading for the next phase of life.
“I think people are so excited to have a way to celebrate their graduate,” she tells NJ Advance Media. “… Having the photos just kind of makes it real.”
Luebs, 22, had trouble securing all the accoutrements for her virtual ceremony, but her school cap, stole and tassel arrived on the very day that Pottheiser took the photos.
“In quarantine I haven’t been getting glammed up as much,” she says. “It kind of makes you feel better. Just to get all dressed up and all of that was nice. I feel like the days in quarantine just blend together.”
Potthesier, 47, who has been working as a photographer for more than 20 years, supplies the college graduate photos free of charge. She came up with the idea for the project after her niece, Hannah, a student at the University of Michigan, saw her graduation canceled. Pottheiser had intended to travel there to take pictures.
During quarantine, she has been isolating at home in Westfield with her husband Nat, who works as a photographer for the NBA. Using the extra time to organize and archive photos, she realized it wasn’t the pictures of celebrities and athletes that caught her eye — it was the images of her own family.
“Wow,” she thought. “There’s going to be a lot of people who have this missing from their visual family history.”
Pottheiser put out an open call on social media to recruit college graduates and their families. She would take photos and ask that families make a donation to the Community FoodBank of New Jersey or the Front Line Appreciation Groups of Union City-West New York-North Bergen and South Orange/Maplewood, which provide meals for health care workers.
“It just sort of happened organically,” she says.
Pottheiser connected with Luebs through Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization that provides service dogs to people with disabilities. The photographer, a volunteer, raises puppies like Laramie before they are placed in homes.
Luebs, who developed transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder that causes inflammation in the spinal cord, when she was 18 months old, came home early from college in Boulder, Colorado ahead of spring break. She had planned to have surgery for a deviated septum when the pandemic shutdowns began.
The graduate is renting an apartment in Boulder through July, but hasn’t been able to return. The speech, language and hearing sciences major got her certificate to become a speech-language pathology assistant in Colorado, but she’s taking a beat during the pandemic before she attempts to accrue more experience in the field and apply for graduate school.
“She worked really hard,” says her mother, Nancy Pavelka. “I’m really proud of her.”
Pavelka, 57, a retired teacher and fellow alum of the university, had planned to come out to Boulder with her family to celebrate Melanie’s achievement. They had booked Airbnbs, even concert tickets.
“We were gonna have a blast, but what are you gonna do?” she says.
Diana Pike was scanning a Facebook discussion in the Front Line Appreciation Group when she spotted a post talking about Potthesier’s college portraits. She seized on the opportunity to showcase her daughter, Samantha, a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston.
“It was like an answered prayer,” says Pike, 55, of Chatham. “She didn’t even have any photos taken at school. She didn’t even have a cap and gown.”
Pike put a request out on Facebook for a cap and gown and was able to get them from a neighbor’s son to match Northeastern’s black attire. Samantha used her father’s old tassel for the cap. The summa cum laude graduate added her honors cords from the college.
Pottheiser photographed Samantha in her ceremonial garb jumping over her lawn at home in front of huge letters that spell out “GRAD 2020.”
The photographer, who is working with graduates from Rutgers University, the University of Maryland and Amherst College this weekend, also films a video interview with each graduate, though she’s not sure what she’ll do with those.
“It all just feels like a way to tell the story of what’s happening now,” she says. Each family gets copies of the photos via Drawbridge Digital, a content storage company that Pottheiser co-owns.
Samantha’s photo session followed a series of events the family planned for their graduate, including a surprise parade on her scheduled day of graduation — May 1 — with family and friends who created “a wall of sound” as they passed by the house. They recorded congratulatory video messages for her in an online album.
“We were really hurting and sad for her not to have this day,” says Pike, who works as paraprofessional in a local fifth grade class. They also had a Zoom Champagne toast with Samantha’s boyfriend Connor and his family in Maine.
One dominant theme of Pottheiser’s graduation photos is family togetherness. She takes pictures of each graduate alone, but also with Mom, Dad, sisters, brothers and pets. For some families, this is the first time in years that every member has been home for more than a few weeks.
Samantha, 21, who majored in cell and molecular biology, attended school over the summer so she could complete her five-year program in four years to graduate at the same time as Connor. In June, she’s starting a job as a research associate with Jnana Therapeutics in Boston, and plans to move in with Connor in September. The past two months have given her back some of the New Jersey days she’s missed in the rush to graduate.
“It’s been this weird silver lining,” she says. “I’ve been able to spend all this time with my family.”
Quality quarantine time is certainly at play in a photo Pottheiser took of Marcus Ferrara and his family in Randolph.
Ferrara, 22, is another graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder. In the photo, taken on May 7, the day he was supposed to graduate, he poses with his mother, father, two sisters and brother in front of some tranquil water. Wearing lighthearted expressions, they point to their cloth face masks.
His mother, Ilisa Ferrara, a virtual health coach, heard about Pottheiser’s project after a friend saw her Facebook post.
“It was really fun to be able to capture that moment,” Ferrara, 53, says of the graduation shots, which include photos of Marcus throwing his cap in the air.
Since her son, an integrative physiology and economics major, figured he would have no use for his college’s standard issue cap and gown, he didn’t order them. In the photos, he sports graduation duds from high school.
The last time Ferrara saw his friends, they said things like “See ya in a couple weeks,” he says. “We definitely didn’t think it was going to be this long, or turn out the way that it did.” He hopes he can see them in person “before everyone moves away and starts that next chapter.” During his stay in Morris County, he’s hunting for jobs in Colorado.
The Ferraras finished off the graduation photo-call with a celebratory barbecue and bonfire in the backyard.
“We made the most of it and that was all I could really ask for,” he says.