August 14, 2009

Two Photographers Named Cornell



      It was July 2002, a time I recall because everyone was riveted to the television news watching reports of the Quecreek (PA) mine disaster (QUECREEK MINE DISASTER: A 21st Century Historical Site in Somerset County, PA).  I was sitting in my sister Kitty’s New Jersey living room watching the successful but dramatic rescue, located just up the mountain from my Laurel Mountain Borough (PA) home, while scanning a trunk full of photographs taken by my father—his Navy buddies, aerial views of different countries, creative photo compositions. As I recall, it was a tremendously hot day, and I had to sit in front of fans while working.

     Before I came to this task, several of my photos had been “feature photos” in the Fay West section of the Greensburg (PA) Tribune Review. One was a distant view of Mt. Pleasant (PA) from Three Mile Hill (which bottoms out in Laurelville) on Route 31, descending downwards towards Bullskin Township. The sunset scene created a view of Mt. Pleasant in full flame, burning to a crisp. It was surrealistic, making me wonder if the town really was on fire.

     I wondered, as I quickly scanned my father’s photographs, whether—or what—my father had contributed to my photographic skill, noted by editors in Greensburg as well as my Fay West editor, Ed Cope (now working as head photographer at the Herald Standard in Uniontown), who is, himself, a great photographer.

     This could be a nature versus nurture debate. Although I knew my father was a photographer, his involvement in my life had been minimal, and ended at my age four. Because of his sparse presence,  I only have a few photos that he took of my sister and I.

     Yet, at a very early age, before I knew he was a Chief Naval Photographer, I enjoyed taking pictures—especially humorous ones. One of my first pictures was of my mother napping on the couch. I placed a potty seat insert on her head for a hat, and snapped the photo. ( )

     I don’t intend to explore the nurture/nature debate in this post. What I would like to share is what he wrote to me about his photography career, which included photos in National Geographic magazine. As much as Kitty and I have tried to locate these photos, we have been unsuccessful.

      Much of this post will be taken from a letter written to me on January 28, 1976, shortly after we were reunited after thirty years of separation. Robert William Cornell was a Navy retiree at this time, living in Pleasantville, New Jersey. He had retired after twenty years of Navy service.

     He described himself as a “fair-weather-aerial-bird,” because he worked on “high altitude cartographic aerial mapping,” which “requires flying high, 20,000 to 60,000 feet and only under ideal weather conditions… high, clear, optimum weather flying—south in the winter—north in the summer—and usually three months or so in each area.” The photography was done when there was ten percent or less cloud coverage, and when the foliage was off the deciduous trees. ( )

     “We mapped entire countries photographically for the U. S, Navy Hydrographic Office…which compiled various forms of maps from them (the photographs). Nautical and Aerial Navigation—Harbor Charts, Topographic maps etc for government and private use as well as for certain foreign countries.”

     During his career, he found himself in “most countries…Saudi Arabia, Jerusalem, Greece, Cypress and all Greek and English Mediterranean areas and Islands, North Africa, Mexico, the Caribbean Islands, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, Labrador, Greenland, Newfoundland and others we photographed completely.” ( )

     He photographed shorelines “offshore and inshore for twenty miles.” The pictures were used to create “coastal navigation charts” and to determine underwater depth and contouring, “as well as plotting all man made features for special maps.”

     Most of the time he worked with small, well-trained crew members, dressed in “civvies.” They had “Special Passports” and International Drivers Licenses. They drew regular pay, flight pay, as well as per diem and dislocation allowances from the embassies.

     In thirty years he “only spent a total of 7 months aboard ship at a few days at a time—usually for flight qualifications—some sailor. I never did find out whether port was in the front or the back of a boat—I always thought Port was a red-sweet wine—!!!… Real good Navy duty…(crews were) sometimes sober.”

     My father was also involved in “supervising the test and evaluation of photographic mapping and surveillance systems in two types special Navy aircraft, the North American twin jet and x recip engine AJ2-P “Savage” and the Douglas A3D-2P “Sky Warrior.”

     His skill was such that he was occasionally called out of retirement to do what he referred to as “post graduate” work. He was “called in and retained after my 20 years to conduct tests on the Grimman(?) Army special recon aircraft the Mohawk A)1-P which saw extensive use in Viet—These also had besides optical reco gear, infra red, radar and sonar with magnetic airborn detectors. Some fun for a stoop that doesn’t know an A/C from D/C circuit—I thought at the time they meant my two homes A/C for Atlantic City and D/C for District of Columbia—how did they know I was a commuter not an electrician???”

     His stateside duties included both attending and instructing in Navy schools. He taught Photo Interpretation in Washington, D. C., for a cumulative total of one year. He spent three years in Pensy, Florida, instructing pilots and crews in recon photo mapping etc. ( ) He also taught beach photographic interpretation for water depth at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York (he and Ezra Cornell, the university founder, have the same genealogical roots).

     In retirement he traveled, rekindling “a lot of old friendships with both civilian and limitary or ex military families.” These traveling experiences gave him “ideas for it is a pleasant climate (Guadalhara on the east coast) and money can be made with my picture box. I’m still considered pretty good with it and I can write somewhat…”

     He knew “most of” the people in Atlantic City, New Jersey, “in one way or another,” because whenever he was in town he worked at “the Studio,” located on the Bay between Atlantic City and Pleasantville. He did a lot of their commercial work, playing “Candid Camera of Atlantic City,” photographing weddings, Bar Mitzahs, Conventions, Miss America Pageants etcetera.

     “(I have) no worry about lucrative work. The majority of people here especially in the Studio and news media always welcome me back and just wonder when I’m going to pack my kit and leave for hither and yon…”

     Like my father, beyond my constant moving into new communities, I have no problem acquiring photography jobs. Much of my professional photography accompanies my writing—newspaper, limited magazine, blogs, and just plain fun photography.

     And I continue to wonder—where did his interest in photography intersect with my interest? This question probably has no answers. The only thing I know is that both of us enjoy the “picture box,” and use it for both work and recreation.


A Father-Daughter reunion after 30 years

MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY: Nancy Briskay Cornell Lipsius

Take Me Out to the Ball Game…So Reluctantly I Go

Honus Wagner & Me

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