students—and at least one dog—hang out in front of Willard Straight Hall in the late ’60s/early ’70s

Decades Ago, Avid Photographer Captured Campus Life on Film

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Midcentury Cornell is vividly preserved through the lens of yearbook editor Jim Cunningham ’71, BS ’72, MEng ’75

By Joe Wilensky

The photographs number in the thousands—a wealth of images, all dating from the late 1960s through the early ’70s, that depict a Cornell campus both familiar and more than a half-century distant.

Pull out just one of the many contact sheets—which comprise dozens of consecutive shots taken on rolls of 35mm Kodak Tri-X film—and you’ll see students lounging on the Slope as the Big Red Marching Band parades by, in glorious black-and-white.

Cunningham captured action shots of nearly every Cornell sport
Cunningham captured action shots of nearly every Big Red sport.

Browse through the stacks of prints and negatives, and you’ll glimpse a professor comically contorting his body as he draws a physics diagram on an old-school blackboard and Collegetown streets lined with now-vintage cars and long-gone businesses.

And you'll see sports—lots of them—including the Big Red men’s hockey team in action at Lynah (complete with a proto-Touchdown, front zipper plainly visible).

Three consecutive frames show a particularly agile professor in front of a blackboard
Three consecutive frames show a particularly agile professor.

The images were all captured by Jim Cunningham ’71, BS ’72, MEng ’75.

A prolific photographer for the Cornellian yearbook, Cunningham also served as its business manager, photo editor, and (in his senior year) co-editor-in-chief.

He passed away in 2022 at age 73.

His family is donating the collection—a vivid window into long-ago campus life on the Hill—to the University Archives.

“His photos represent much more than the casual shots of the clocktower or sunsets from the Slope that everyone takes,” says University Archivist Evan Earle ’02, MS ’14.

Cunningham occasionally shows up on his own rolls of film, photographed with his own camera by a friend
Cunningham occasionally shows up on his own rolls of film, photographed by a friend.

“Photographs documenting campus life are always of interest to us. And when we’re able to preserve photos by a student like Jim—who not only was a technically good photographer but also had an eye for documenting what was significant to the University—the historical value is greater, because the content is richer.”

The broad variety of subjects sprang largely from necessity: yearbook photographers cover many facets of campus life.

Casual portraits of friends and classmates show up throughout Cunningham's photographic collection
Casual portraits of friends and classmates abound.

And Cunningham, armed with a Canon 35mm camera and a variety of lenses, was remarkably adept.

“He taught me a lot about photography,” recalls Mark Halperin ’71, photo editor of the 1971 Cornellian. “I’d never even worked in a darkroom before, and Jim helped to train me; he was very generous in terms of sharing his knowledge and experience.”

Cunningham captured Big Red sports (hockey, football, lacrosse, and more); official events like Commencement; and concerts by Simon & Garfunkel, Joan Baez, Kenny Loggins, and dozens of others.

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He took candids and portraits of staff working behind the scenes in dining halls and building maintenance, and found inspiration on and around a picturesque campus in all seasons.

While some of his images are timeless—like the clocktower peeking out from behind flowering branches—others are very much of their moment, from student protests, sit-ins, teach-ins, and marches to political bumper stickers and provocative graffiti.

But his most evocative images may be the many that capture friends and peers—relaxing on lawns, goofing around in dorms, mugging for the camera, strolling through Collegetown, working on the yearbook, eating in the dining halls, and mingling with the dogs who then roamed quads and classrooms.

Says friend Ken Kunken ’72, BS ’73, MA ’77: “I don’t think I ever saw Jim without a smile on his face and a camera around his neck.”

a student films with a movie camera on the Arts Quad
Moviemaking on the Arts Quad, circa 1970s.

As an undergrad, Kunken suffered a spinal cord injury while playing football. After he returned to complete his studies, Cunningham documented Kunken’s life on campus—navigating the Hill in a wheelchair—in numerous photos.

Several of them appear in Kunken’s recent memoir, I Dream of Things that Never Were.

“Jim knew how to blend in with the crowd, to blend in with the event—not in an obtrusive way, but to capture everything,” Kunken recalls. “You could see he loved what he was doing.”

After completing his master’s degree, Cunningham moved back to his native Lincoln, MA, in the Boston suburbs.

He worked as a systems engineer for area firms and helped establish the town’s local cable station, managing both its equipment and programming for many years.

His photos represent much more than the casual shots of the clocktower or sunsets from the Slope that everyone takes.

Evan Earle ’02, MS ’14, University archivist

He also used his engineering acumen to modernize the weather station on Canada’s tiny Kent Island—one that his father, a meteorologist, had helped establish.

And photography remained a lifelong hobby.

Cunningham’s older brother, Peter, notes it was their father who “had a Kodachrome habit” and turned both sons on to photography.

“We each spent endless hours in the darkroom,” recalls Peter, who went on to become a professional photographer.

And Cunningham stayed involved with Cornell throughout his life, especially with the systems engineering program.

Until shortly before his death, he regularly came back to the Hill to advise student project teams, and he dedicated much of his estate to endow an assistant directorship in the College of Engineering to oversee them.

Cunningham pictured in 2022 with a Formula SAE vehicle built by Cornell Racing, a student project team that he supported.
In 2022 with a Formula SAE car built by Cornell Racing, a student project team he supported. (Provided)

“Jim came away from Cornell with a career in electrical engineering that stood him in excellent stead his whole life,” his brother observes.

“But it was outside of the classroom, as a photographer, that he learned to be social, and really a generous human being.”

Top: Students—and at least one campus dog—hang out in front of the Straight in the early 1970s; at far right is the iconic tree stump that served as a message board and political canvas. All photos by Cunningham, unless otherwise indicated.

Published October 11, 2023


  1. LUIS CHALITA, Class of 1965


  2. Shelley Winkler, Class of 1976

    It would be so cool to be able to see more photos online at some point! These photos bring back so many memories, and it is so fun to see how we were from the camera’s lens. A wonderful gift to CU.

  3. Michaline Bruyninckx, Class of 1979

    Please find a way for us to access his catalogue. I long to see more photos of the scenes that are ever present in my memories.

  4. Eric Key

    Ah yes, The Stump! And I think the dog belonged to Psi U

  5. Suzy Minken, Class of 1977

    Loved seeing these images of Cornell. Film is such a powerful way to catch a moment in time, and bring back so many wonderful memories! Hanging out in front of the Willard Straight Hall was the place that we affectionately referred to as “putting in facetime”. If you wanted to see your friends or catch up with them, the steps of WSH was the place to be. And as captured in the photos, no one had a cell phone! Oh how different the times were back in the 70’s. Thank you so much to Jim Cunningham’s family for sharing these iconic photos. And to Jim, who was so talented behind the lens in capturing Cornell in photos. Gone way too soon.

  6. John Sulpizio, Class of 1969

    While it brings back fond memories, there is something ever so disconcerting to see, to know, and to realize your Cornell life is depicted as ancient history, especially when it feels just like yesterday.

  7. Michael Sadofsky, Class of 1976

    I had the pleasure of working with Jim on the Cornellian yearbook from 1972 – 1976. With Jim’s guidance I started as a staff photographer and eventually became editor in chief my senior year (‘76). Our staff was blessed to have his photography skills during his graduate student years. I remember our trip to the Boston Garden for Cornell’s participation in the ECAC hockey tournament . Afterwards we stayed at Jim’s parents house in Lincoln. Jim, along with Math professor Joe Blaze, were great mentors for the entire photography and yearbook staff. He will be missed.

  8. John Brindley, Class of 1976

    Just a brief glimpse of these photos brings back emotions that are surprisingly strong. 50 years have rushed past, yet I still vividly remember those days in the best way. Thanks for this incredible gift today.

  9. Mark Trevithick, Class of 1974

    Great memories of a time long past – would love to see more!

  10. Alan Lopena, Class of 1973

    I worked for and with Jim Cunningham for four years as a photographer on the Cornellian Yearbook staff. I still remember him well after 50-plus years. He had a very discerning eye and could either praise your work or cut you down to size with 4 or 5 well-chosen words. He made me a much better photographer. He also had a biting wit and did not suffer fools gladly…all-in-all a very interesting guy to be around.

    R.I.P. Jim

    Alan Lopena
    BS Engineering’73
    Cornellian staff photographer

  11. Michael Schenker, Class of 1968

    Before it was “the stump” it was an elegant elm tree in front of the Straight along with the Ostrander Elms’ canopy over the main campus road. Sadly, when the elms died from disease they were not replaced with new trees (someone in the Ag School must have had knowledge of an appropriate species) but concrete sidewalks. Something was lost.

    • Carol Selman, Class of 1968

      Thank you, Michael,for evoking the beauty of Cornell during our time there. I don’t believe we knew one another but we unknowingly share memories of a physical place that was already much paved over by the 60s and already bereft of most of the elms but less developed than now

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