Photographer Reidar Hahn retires

Reidar Hahn gets ready for the Fermilab 50th-anniversary celebrations in June 2017. Photo: Leticia Shaddix

To most of Fermilab, he’s the tireless, in-demand artist whose lens turns every scene into a magazine-worthy spread. To those who work with him, he’s a Swiss Army knife of science communication, directing scientists in videos, creating banners to hang on balconies, and managing projects and events that make the lab look good. To those who know him, he’s the reliable, big-hearted, puzzlingly self-deprecating ol’ pal who will leave an unfillable void when he departs Fermilab this month.

Reidar Hahn — photographer, colleague, friend — is retiring. His last day is Dec. 30. All are welcome to a retirement reception on Thursday, Dec. 12, between 2 and 5 p.m. in Creative Services, WHGF SW.

Hahn came to Fermilab in 1987 after working for eight years as a newspaper photographer. (An uncredited wordsmith, he even wrote headlines.) One of two lab photographers when he started, he captured it all: the lab’s science, the engineering, the environment, the people. In 2008, he was promoted to head of Visual Media Services, now Creative Services.

“I’m proud that our group has been a service organization,” Hahn said. “We’ve made it our job to serve as many people as we could with the resources we were given.”

By any measure, Hahn has fulfilled that mission. Behind the scenes at lab events, he’s designed and produced posters and displays, videorecorded talks for employees and the public, and helped pitch outdoor tents for VIP events in all kinds of weather. Behind the camera and the computer, he’s snapped photos for the lab’s publications, produced videos for the lab’s YouTube channel, created training videos for lab employees, and designed graphics to illustrate physics concepts.

“Reidar and his group make sure that lab events go off without a hitch,” said Kurt Riesselmann, deputy head of the Office of Communication. “He pays attention to detail and comes prepared. He has held the work they produce to the highest standard.”

Those who see his photos know that the Reidar Hahn standard is set to “stunning.” In the 32 years since he began working at Fermilab, few have done more than Hahn to develop the lab’s image as a place of science and splendor. Whether working in freezing outside temperatures, coming to the lab in the middle of the night, or crawling through tight spaces, he always aimed to get the best shot: Wilson Hall, standing tall, season after season. Wide views of powerful accelerators that boost particles to light speed. Giant particle detectors that force you to stand back and look up to appreciate them. Miles of cables bringing data from sensor to server. Closeups of small parts. Sweeping shots of the prairie. And most important, showcasing people working toward discovery, again and again.

“I just love seeing his photographs,” said Georgia Schwender, Fermilab Art Gallery curator. “He’s skewed my world in a very positive way. He’s changed my views of Fermilab because his pictures are so beautiful.”

Hahn has always been ready to capture the historical moments. On the day that the Nobel Committee announced that Fermilab Director Leon Lederman had won the prize, Hahn snapped the iconic photo of him by the sculpture “Mobius Strip”. One of Hahn’s photos of the CDF detector was picked up by Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report when the top quark discovery was announced. His picture of the arrival of the Muon g-2 ring under a stormy sky has been seen in The Guardian.

“For as long as I’ve been at the lab, Reidar’s been there to capture our proud moments, and the lab won’t be the same without him,” said Mary Convery, Accelerator Division deputy head.

One of his most celebrated images is a long-exposure nighttime photo of the Tevatron collider. Hahn orchestrated firetrucks, security vehicles and his wife Laura’s car to circle the 4-mile ring clockwise and counterclockwise for 30 minutes. Headlights and taillights in motion, the photo’s resulting uninterrupted, circular streak of light illuminated the ring where the Tevatron lay. The photograph was picked up as a double spread in Scientific American.

“Reidar captures experiments in interesting ways that I didn’t think were possible — the way he lights the photo, composes it, even the postproduction stuff he’s done,” said Jamie Santucci, a Fermilab engineering physicist. “All the pictures he’s taken make Fermilab so cool.”

That stems not just from Hahn’s skills as a photographer, but also as the consummate science communicator.

“When he shows up to a location to do pictures, it’s not just, ‘Illuminate this picture and get out.’ It’s, ‘What is this thing? How does it work? What is its purpose?’,” said Marty Murphy, Fermilab accelerator operations specialist. “He asks a whole bunch of questions. That’s why he understands the science so well.”

Hahn’s grasp of the science and his easy camaraderie with others have made him one of Fermilab’s best ambassadors to the community. He’s helped staff booths at local events, led tours of the lab’s facilities for the public and shared Fermilab’s work at conferences. And he’s just as skilled coaching technical experts on how to make themselves relatable to the public.

“His ability to make people feel at ease in front of a camera, whether it’s a high-ranking politician or a first-year graduate student, is one-of-a-kind,” Riesselmann said. “He takes personal interest in his photography subjects and what they do, whether they work as a technician, a financial accountant or a scientist at the lab.”

Reidar Hahn pauses for a picture beneath Mt. Rushmore on an assignment: to follow and photograph the path of the neutrino beamline from Fermilab to Lead, South Dakota.

The moment was right for Hahn’s forward thinking when he began working at the lab in 1987. Visual Media Services was transitioning from card catalog to computer, and Hahn had begun computerizing all his personal photos at home. It occurred to him that the lab should be committing pictures to disk, too, making them searchable electronically. So he created a photo database. Today, it has evolved into a giant online repository that is searched so often, many take it for granted.

He also helped stand up one of the lab’s first webpages, for Visual Media Services.

“Being visual, we thought we should put a photograph on our homepage,” Hahn said. “We got a note back from the Computing Section saying, ‘The World Wide Web is not for photographs. It is for text only.’ I wish I’d kept that note.”

During his time at Fermilab, Hahn says, he’s developed an appreciation for its community of smart, thoughtful people.

“I really have an appreciation for intelligence and intelligent people that I didn’t have before,” Hahn said. “There are a lot of problems that our scientists and engineers have answers to, outside their disciplines. I learned a lot just sitting at the lunch table with them, listening to them talk about real-world problems, physics problems, current events. It’s refreshing to get these points of view from them, and it’s humbling.”

Anyone who knows Hahn knows he cares deeply for his work family and their well-being.

“Whenever I was in a jam or needed advice, I would go to him, and he would always make time for me even though he was really busy himself,” Schwender said. “That helpfulness brings a level of trust between colleagues. There aren’t a lot of people who say, ‘Sure I can help you.’ Only a handful. He’s one.”

Indeed, helpfulness is the characteristic signature of a Hahn interaction.

“He tends to prioritize other people’s needs above his own. And he’s an expert at many things, but when you ask him a question about it, he doesn’t make you feel silly about something that’s obvious to him,” Murphy said. “He’s generous with his time, personable and a good conversationalist, but he won’t dominate the conversation, either. He listens to people.”

As the writer of this Reidar reminiscence and his employee, I get to end this on a personal note (and pivot to first-name reference). At one of our one-on-one meetings, Reidar ended by asking me, “One more thing: How can I help you?”. That’s Reidar in a single gesture. A supervisor who asks his employee how he can make her work life better. A keen-eyed photographer who asks his subjects how he can make their work look awe-inspiring. A 32-year-long employee who daily asks the lab how he can help make it shine.

“I’ll miss him. I can’t imagine the lab without him,” Schwender said. “With him retiring, it’s a whole era that’s leaving us.”

Reidar feels the same about his career at the lab.

“I’ve known all six directors, and I’ve worked for five,” he said. “It’s been a real privilege.”

Reidar heads to Idaho early next year. The lab is invited to celebrate Reidar on Thursday, Dec. 12, between 2 and 5 p.m. in Creative Services, WHGF SW. There will be cake.