Tangled Up in Blue

Alessandro Uribe-Rheinbolt ’20 set out with his camera to capture an authentic version of life in Chapel Hill. Here, a group of housemates and avid cyclists celebrate their graduation in 2020. (Photo: Alessandro Uribe-Rheinbolt ’20)

Not long after arriving at Carolina in 2016, when everything still felt new and a little daunting, Alessandro Uribe-Rheinbolt ’20 discovered the Yackety Yack. The hefty, hardbound yearbook that chronicled Carolina’s student life for more than a century was struggling by the time Uribe-Rheinbolt stepped onto campus, mostly ignored by a generation of undergrads more interested in scrolling endless iPhone images than paging through a carefully curated photo book.

But Uribe-Rheinbolt was captivated. “I stumbled upon them in the undergrad library,” he recalled. “I would go to the library, put on some music and start looking through the Yackety Yacks. I recognized all of these places in the photos, and it started to make me feel a little more deeply rooted into the school. You start to feel this connection to previous generations who have been through this place. It captured super authentic life, and that really spoke to me.”

Early in the COVID pandemic, off-campus students had a socially distant dance party on their lawn. (Photo: Alessandro Uribe-Rheinbolt ’20)

Capturing an authentic version of life in Chapel Hill became a calling for Uribe-Rheinbolt, who grew up in Colombia but spent summers visiting his grandparents in western North Carolina. The result is a dreamy, timely collection of Carolina snapshots titled lots and lots of blue. With more than 216 matte pages, the collection offers a look into undergraduate life in all of its glories and banalities, from cluttered rental house kitchens to the euphoria of cap-and-gown celebrations on graduation day. The book is divided into five sections — blue town, blue house, blue sports, blue cups and blue gowns — reflecting some of the essential categories of the college years in Chapel Hill. “I just wanted to show student life, what yearbooks now don’t show,” Uribe-Rheinbolt said. “Images now are events, everything digitized and perfect. I wanted mine to be more about daily life, to look more timeless, like you can’t tell the era they’re from.”

Basking in the sun at Kenan Stadium during a graduation photo shoot (Photo: Alessandro Uribe-Rheinbolt ’20)

The result is a photo collection that has an intimate, unpretentious feel, full of mostly candid shots with little of the posing and polishing that mark social media imagery. Uribe-Rheinbolt shot most of the photos using old-fashioned acetate film to re-create the gauzy, occasionally overexposed photos he saw in the old Yackety Yacks. He said his favorite yearbooks were from the 1970s and early 1980s. “Before then it was a lot of portraiture and formal images,” he said. “But by the ’70s and ’80s, it was very creative, and that’s what inspired me the most.”

Uribe-Rheinbolt was also motivated by the idea of leaving a gift for his closest friends. The college years are fleeting, and students know the days are limited even as they’re living them. The relationships, the nights out, the challenges and heartaches — it’s all bound up in a place students leave behind after a few short semesters.

“It’s a pivotal time for everyone, and those connections you make are really beautiful and important,” Uribe-Rheinbolt said. “You’re in a space where everyone is trying to find themselves and find their path. I think for a lot of people, it’s the most independence and free-spiritedness they ever feel. This is a time of not being judged or supervised by parents or family members. There’s more fun, more recklessness — authenticity is encouraged, not hidden away.”

The book lots and lots of blue is a dreamy, timely collection of Carolina snapshots by Alessandro Uribe-Rheinbolt ’20.

Some of the most evocative images in lots and lots of blue illustrate the extremes of connection and disconnection. Uribe-Rheinbolt loves the blue cups section, which shows the chaotic energy of getting ready for a college party, students losing themselves on the dance floor and watching the evening become weirder. One full-page photo shows a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer fizzing into a water bottle; another page shows the blur of bodies moving and colliding in the crowded space of a living room. A reader can almost hear the music thumping through the ink.

Graham Memorial reading room on a quiet sunny afternoon (Photo: Alessandro Uribe-Rheinbolt ’20)

At the other extreme, images recall the long months of the pandemic shutdown at Carolina, when campus life went dormant as students logged into class from their laptop screens. There are photos of a socially distanced graduation, with students in full regalia striding across the porch of a rental house with only a table full of laptops as their audience. That allowed friends and relatives to mark the occasion, remotely, when the University canceled Spring 2020 Commencement.

Uribe-Rheinbolt was supposed to be standing in Kenan Stadium that spring, collecting his diploma alongside thousands of classmates. The smaller, more close-knit celebration, however, brought its own pleasures. “It was amazing to have that super-intimate moment with friends,” he said.

Graduating into the strange, COVID-addled economy of 2020 meant that Uribe-Rheinbolt didn’t have a clear sense of where to go next. He moved to Detroit, worked for a software company, switched gears entirely to become a cook at an award-winning restaurant and now works for the town of Hamtrack, Michigan, on youth engagement and other civic programs. “I like building my own path, trying to figure myself out,” he said.

The book has been an unexpected but welcome hit, selling first to Uribe-Rheinbolt’s wide circle of Carolina friends but slowly gaining a following through word of mouth and prominent placement at Chapel Hill’s Epilogue book café on Franklin Street.

“I’ve gotten such great response from friends who see this as a representation of their time at Carolina,” Uribe-Rheinbolt said. “So many people have told me, ‘This is what my kids are going to see when they ask me about college!’ It’s how they’ll try to explain the experience and spark stories.”

Just like the Yackety Yacks of old.

— Eric Johnson ’08






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