Penn College grad ‘launches’ photography career
Christopher J. Herzog doesn’t remember his first photo subjects as a Pennsylvania College of Technology student. But memories of recent shoots promise to be everlasting. Herzog has trained his lens on the most advanced space telescope in history, an observatory that aims to identify the first stars and galaxies of the universe.
The Mechanicsburg native is a photographer for Northrop Grumman, the prominent aerospace and defense technology company. For Herzog, the job represents more than a career snapshot. It embodies his passion, kindled by a Penn College digital photography class.
“I am thankful for that course because without it, I would have never discovered my passion,” said Herzog, who graduated in 2018 with an information technology bachelor’s degree, specializing in networking. “Without that class, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
He’s at a designated Historic Aerospace Site– Northrop Grumman’s Space Park in Redondo Beach, California. Working at the 110-acre complex has produced vital contributions to space exploration, from the descent engine for the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module that lowered U.S. astronauts to the moon’s surface to the instrument packages on the Viking landers that performed biological experiments on Mars.
“It’s exciting to be able to witness all of the great things happening here,” Herzog said. “The first time I walked into the high-bay clean room, I literally pinched myself. It’s surreal. Every time, it’s the same feeling.”
A visit to the massive facility often requires Herzog to don a bunny suit before clutching his cameras. The protective clothing prevents him from contaminating the environment of his photo subjects, such as the James Webb Space Telescope.
Northrop Grumman is one of two main manufacturers of the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. A partnership among NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, the Webb Telescope is optimized for infrared wavelengths and tasked with exploring every phase of cosmic history.
Herzog’s photos documented the space observatory in its stow configuration before it was transported by boat earlier this fall to its launch site in French Guiana, located on the northeastern coast of South America. About a month after its December launch, the Webb Telescope is scheduled to reach its orbital location — 940,000 miles from Earth.
“To have the opportunity to photograph one of the most monumental achievements of mankind — the culmination of our best technology — was nothing short of inspiring. It was metamorphic,” Herzog described.
Other photo assignments have included elements of high-tech aviation achievements, such as the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, an airborne early warning and control aircraft with air-refueling capability, and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Block II, a multirole strike fighter.
“Witnessing how all the pieces come together to make a sophisticated machine is amazing,” Herzog said. “I have nothing but respect for all of our scientists, engineers and staff.”
Growing up, Herzog was a budding engineer. He loved to take things apart and try — often unsuccessfully he admits — to reassemble them. In high school, he turned his tinkering to computers while volunteering for an organization that rebuilt old PCs for people. That led to earning an associate degree in networking from Harrisburg Area Community College.
The lure of a bachelor’s degree in IT brought him to Penn College.
“The professors offered a lot of valuable experience from the professional world, and they genuinely wanted to be involved in their students’ success,” Herzog recalled. “Stephen Cheskiewicz was a great teacher. He was able to provide me with the confidence to pursue what I wanted and be mindful of the risks.”
The associate professor of computer information technology returned the compliment.
“I have been teaching for almost 20 years, and Chris stands out as one of the most outstanding students that I’ve had in the classroom,” Cheskiewicz said. “He had a level of competence and professionalism that I seldom see, with an attention to detail that helped him produce some of the best work I have ever received from a student in a 400-level course.”
Potential employers also were impressed. A major defense contractor recruited Herzog during his senior year and hired him to be a system administrator in King of Prussia to design and develop data centers. In his spare time, Herzog focused on his Penn College-inspired hobby — photography.
The college requires all students seeking a bachelor’s degree to take an art elective. Herzog chose digital photography on the recommendation of his father.
“It was a wild experience to learn something completely new from a completely different approach than IT,” Herzog said. “My teacher, Keith Vanderlin (assistant professor of graphic design), was strict and honest, and I enjoyed that. Most of my photos were bad. I learned that failing is a part of the journey to success. I could have taken my failures personally and given up, but I wanted to prove to myself and everyone that I could do it.”
Stretching his “creative-mind muscle” in that class led Herzog to the realization that photography was his true calling.
“It’s capturing a moment and/or creating a moment. You can always learn something new, and there is no ending. You can create your own style. You can break the rules without any repercussions. There is a lot to love,” he explained.
Herzog’s experience with the course illustrates the importance of a general education to complement the strong technical core students receive at Penn College, according to Bradley M. Webb, dean of engineering technologies.
“Courses in math, English and communication strengthen students’ educational foundation. Science, history and art classes broaden their perspective,” he said. “As a whole, the courses add tremendous value to the specialized hands-on experiences that students receive in their major. And sometimes, like in Christopher’s case, they open future doors that you never knew existed.”
The door didn’t open right away for Herzog. IT was his invested career path, and he enjoyed the people and his role at the defense contractor. But on the side, he began to develop quite the photography collection, with sections devoted to portraits, landscapes, fashion and architecture.
“I did a medley of everything. Nothing was off the table,” he said.
A friendship with one of his employer’s photographers introduced him to the awe-inspiring opportunities in defense/industrial photography and prompted him to seek an opening on the Northrop Grumman photo team. Herzog landed the position in July.
“I work with a team of great people. Everyone comes from different backgrounds, and they are all extremely knowledgeable,” Herzog said. “They have taught me a lot, and I hope to continue to learn from them.”
Portraits, corporate events, manufacturing processes and the latest examples of Northrop Grumman’s aerospace ingenuity fill the “sea of never-ending photo opportunities,” Herzog said. His duties encompass the entire photography workflow — shooting, editing, delivering and archiving. Use of his photos range from marketing initiatives to reference materials.
“I’m proud of myself for taking the risk to pursue my passion — something I have no extensive formal education in,” Herzog said. “I’m a risk-averse person, and this alone was my biggest challenge and proudest accomplishment.”