Earl Burnell Went From Undertaker to Famous Photographer

His photographs of Sarasota helped put our city on the map.

By Larry Kelleher May 6, 2015

Burnell christmas card zecyiz
Courtesy of Sarasota County Historical Resources

In Earl Burnell's own words:

"I am really thrilled to be asked to give a recording of my life history. Of course, what I have to tell is very interesting to me; I can’t see why it would be interesting to others. My life has been filled with thrills. I have had people tell me that life had no thrills. To me life without thrills would be very drab indeed.

"My name is Earl Burnell. I was born of talented parents January 4, 1880 in Castile, New York. I mention this because the talent of each parent was inherited by me and was instrumental in guiding me in many ways through my span of life. Mother was an artist, making free-hand pastels and crayon portraits. From her I received my liking for things beautiful, such as art, music and so forth.

"Father was an inventor and mechanic. In those days it meant he was a blacksmith. I suppose he could shoe horses as all blacksmiths did. But, primarily, he built fine carriages and wagons. To do this, iron had to be hammered into various shapes to support the body and wheels of these fine vehicles. From him I inherited a very strong liking to invent and create.

"When I was three years old, Father passed away and I was adopted by the Burnell family, who became my real parents, as they always considered me their own and loved me as such. Mother Burnell was a mother I always loved and did so till the end of her days.

"I don’t suppose my boyhood days were much different from that of other boys during the last of the nineteenth century. On the farm I rode horses, milked cows, plowed, harrowed, pulled or hoed corn and potatoes, helped make maple sugar in the spring, cut wood in the winter. I suppose I did my share of mischief in chasing chickens, tormenting the house cat, stole apples from an orchid near school, ran away to go fishing and swimming. Once with some neighbor boys, we were caught stealing the corn from the neighbor’s field. When caught doing wrong I was punished, but somehow I would get into trouble time and again.

"My district school days were happy ones. Not because of the lessons, but the recesses and noon hour when we could play games such as Annie Addie over duck on the rock, Pom-pom-pull-away, leap frog and so forth.

"Early in life my gift of building things was strong and I led the other boys in building a brush hut, damming a brook that ran near the school, built water wheels, constructed toboggan slides in the winter; I even built a bicycle which I could ride down hill.

"Father gave me a room in the carriage house where I had a shop. One day I saw a turning lathe and a mill and I had to have one. Started with a knife and saw.  Soon I had one that would work. Later, Mother discarded an old clothes wringer and there was a good metal spindle for me. They sent me to a private school with high standards. Here I found I had to spend my evenings on so-called homework. The rules of the school were very strict. The old Seminary bell rang at 7:00 p.m. and we had to be in our rooms studying. One could be excused for certain things, but three violations caused one to be expelled. No dancing or wild parties were ever allowed. Father paid one dollar per week for five days board and lodging. He often furnished a basket of food and bed linen. The school had literary and debating societies. And we were also taught proper conduct as to formal invitations, answers, and conduct with a lady on the street, and so forth.

"I got three years of high school, but with potatoes as low as 10 cents per bushel, and milk very cheap, Father could not finance even the smallest funds I needed to go through the last year and graduate. As a whole, there did not seem to be much interest in graduating. For out of a school of 100 pupils, only about 10 would graduate. As I grew older, I never thought or cared for a college education. The only college graduate in our whole countryside was held as a curiosity by the kids.

"My desire to build kept me occupied and Father had trouble to get me to work on the farm. One thing I liked however was running the new grain binder. Father did not have any mechanical ability and was always running into trouble and much to my joy I had to run it. I knew every gear, belt and bolt, and could make it do its job well. To do so, I had to drive 3 horses, keep the binder adjusted, and discover any slip in the work of a complicated mechanism.

"As I grew older, I realized I should have been a mechanical engineer. However, my life work came in a way I never dreamed.

"But to go back a bit. At the Seminary I met my future wife and at the age of 21 we were married. Her father had a furniture store and was the village undertaker [editor’s note: morticians were then practically unknown and the combination of the two businesses were not uncommon in small communities]. As I did not care for farm life, I assisted him and soon I was a licensed undertaker.

"At 23 years of age, I received a camera in exchange of a debt. Right there was something I could use and my desire to create and mother’s talent took over. I was thrilled in creating something that had not been made before; a photograph. To this day, the change of metallic silver into a beautiful photograph is a thing of fascination to me.

"Very soon my father’s gift to me took over and I began to build photo equipment. Even picked up enough knowledge of electricity to construct arc lamps which I used for many years. One I built 35 years ago is still in use in my old studio in New York State. I could ramble for hours about building cameras, lighting equipment, furniture and so forth.

"My real achievement came when my ability and bent caused me to build a flash bag. By its use I was so far ahead of most photographers that I had no doubts in choosing photography as a career. During the first few years of the 20th Century, there was not any electric light that gave good results in the making of photographs. The only light with possibilities was flash powder. This was a highly explosive and dangerous medium. One of its ingredients was magnesium metal, which burns with an intense white light. It burned very quickly, about as fast as our present flashbulbs. The only trouble was it filled the room with smoke, and only one photograph could be made. Knowing the light would be wonderful if smoke could be eliminated, I constructed a cloth bag with silk from which I gave a soft light so sought after in making good photographs. Sometime later, I invented a repeating device so I could take 6 photos without re-loading. After the photographs were all made, I carried the bag outside and emptied the smoke.

"With this perfected light, I went to Buffalo, secured a solicitor and had a good business almost at once. Photographing people in their homes appealed then as now. My success was almost phenomenal and very soon I was asked to furnish a full page of Buffalo’s leading Sunday paper. Talk about thrills; it was a wonder my hat could be worn at all. In all, I had five pages of my photographs in Rotogravure. One of children, one of a man, two of birds and one mixed page. All this happened while I still lived 50 miles outside of Buffalo.

"Perhaps a bit earlier, I had sent in a small photograph of the falls of the Genesee River at Letchworth State Park, and was thrilled at the full front page for the Sunday issue. The engineer for the New York State Water Commission saw it and asked me to make more of the three falls and gorge. This is all now a state park and is known as the 'Grand Canyon of the East.'

I soon became official photographer for the New York State Water Supply Commission. Through this I was asked to become head photographer of the Board of Water Supply of New York City, as my portrait work in Buffalo was calling, I refused.

"Soon in Buffalo, I joined the Professional Photographers Society of New York and began to meet photographers of note, from whom I received much help in making better photographs.

"'Twas there I met one of the very best photographers in the whole United States. A.O. Titus, and in time, he asked me to become associated with him. He to do the studio work, I to do the home sittings. From him I received an incentive and so much encouragement that I have profited by it all my life.

"However, I did not like city life as I was a country lad at heart. So, in 1916, I moved to Pen-Yan, New York, a small city of 5,000 inhabitants. Many people asked how such a name originated. The early settlers were Pennsylvania Dutch and Yankees, thus the name. Here I established a studio with almost instant success. The man from whom I purchased my studio was slow and not much of a hustler. But I was just he opposite. I photographed parades, fires, accidents, and would have prints in my showcase in one half hour. This had never been done before, and I had people talking.

"During the days of the First World War, when a bunch of boys were drafted and took a train to camp, hundreds came from all over the country to see them off. I usually whistled very loudly to get the back faces turned towards the camera, and many of the crowd could be recognized. Then, almost before the train had left I had a 16/20 print in my showcase in the arcade entrance. For several days one could not get into the building without passing through the crowd that stood looking for a view of themselves. I was quite sure to sell a print if they could see their own face. No face--no sale!

"In a few years I purchased a store on Main Street and established my studio on the ground floor on the central part of the city. It was not long before I was well known and held in high esteem I had always felt that photographers should so conduct himself to be respected and in a class with the attorney, banker, or doctor.

"It was here that I began to receive honors on honors on my photographs exhibited at conventions; sometimes an honorary mention, sometimes a cup.

"During my first appearance on a convention platform, I gave a one half-hour talk on gadgets in the studio. Later, I gave a slide talk on lenses; then a demonstration on baby photography. To climax my work, I was elected President of the Professional Photographers Society of New York State, in 1925. At the close of my work as such, I was presented with a hundred dollar Eros watch that I still possess. All this led to a greater effort to improve the quality of my photographs and soon I was asked to demonstrate my way of lighting, the basis of successful portraits at the national convention held that year in New York City.

"After all this effort, my health became impaired and my doctor prescribed 2 months vacation in Florida. That year I must have gotten sand in my shoes, for I spent two months each year in Florida until I moved here in 1934. A severe sinus trouble caused the move. I might mention, I have never had any trouble with [my sinuses] ever since.

"The first year after establishing a studio in Sarasota, I did most of the photographic work for the Sarasota Tribune mail-away. Soon, I was official photographer for the Ringling Circus while in Winter Quarters. Also, for years, I was the photographer for the Ringling Museum. All this time I was creating lighting and lab equipment and became known by my close friends as ‘Stoop Nigel.’

"The first year I was here, I attended the Florida State Photographers Convention and a good friend from Washington, D.C., told the leaders I was convention material. I started and for many years held some office or performed some service for the growing Florida organization, and to add more thrills, I was elected President of the Florida Photographers Society in 1939. Thrilled with success, I exhibited at the Southeastern States Convention, and was soon called to demonstrate and later became president of that organization.

"In 1940, I received my master photographer's degree from the Photographers Association of America. I believe I was the 18th to be honored. I could go on and on, but feel I have said altogether too much and had better close. I am more or less retired, but still take a family group occasionally, could not get away from my love of photography, as I know nothing else. So, we’ll say au revoir."

(Editor's note: W. Earl Burnell died in Sarasota at the age of 81, in 1961. An excerpt from Escort Salutes in 1948 seems appropriate: “The lens of Earl Burnell’s cameras have recorded much, and in all manner of ways. Some of the most beautiful aerial pictures of Sarasota were taken by him. Hung in many places, many may be seen at the Chamber of Commerce. The photographic art of Earl Burnell apparently has no limitations. Since 1934, Burnell photos have recorded the major events of Sarasota’s gay pageant of Sara de Sota. If anyone can be signaled out as being synonymous with the pageant, most certainly, it is Earl Burnell – official photographer for 14 years.

"Ingenuity was a special trait of Earl’s. It is a sort of inventive ingeniousness most appreciated by an engineer. The 'back stage' portion of his studio amazes even the most credible. There, a series of fascinating, automatic mechanical functions dealing with the production of photographs takes place at the touch of a button. Wheels revolve, trays rock,  fans whirl, timers click, lights go off and on--it’s much like a house of magic and yet quite thoroughly practical. His studio camera cranked up and down. That was too slow for Earl. He made some changes. Now it’s up, or it’s down--in a second’s time. Earl Burnell moves quickly--generally speaks quickly--thinks quickly. He will discern in a flash what others labor over.

"Earl Burnell had earned much fame for himself. As the scene of much of his artistic and talented efforts, Sarasota has been brought fame, too; and yet with all, a more pleasing, more warmly human man probably could not be found. If he has a fault – some men might measure it and give it the name of ‘perfectionism’; if it is a fault – it also comes close to being his code and his life.”)

Article courtesy of Doris Davis, former manager of Sarasota County Historical Resources. Brought to you by Sarasota History Alive - Where History Happens Everyday.

Show Comments