A few weeks ago, John Francis McCarthy took off on a quest. He drove his minivan east on Route 80, heading toward Truxton in rural Cortland County. McCarthy was searching for a pilot living somewhere in the hills, a guy he hadn’t seen since they said goodbye at the Marcellus airport about 25 years ago, on a January night.
The anniversary matters to McCarthy, a Skaneateles photographer. That was the day he captured an image extraordinary enough to change his life, and the only person to share the moment was the pilot, Bob Scianna.
They were in the air above Skaneateles Lake, traveling south, when a shaft of light from the setting sun broke through the clouds. It turned Seneca Lake into a golden mirror and kept moving from Finger Lake to Finger Lake. McCarthy realized he had a chance for an image he’d always dreamed about.
It was a cold day. He pointed his camera through an open window on the plane. In memory, McCarthy isn’t sure if he shouted the words or simply gestured toward Scianna:
Bob, you have to go around!
Scianna did. He banked the plane and came back up, going north. McCarthy, furiously alternating between two cameras — a 35-millimeter and a twin-lens medium format Rollei — had about two minutes to capture what’s become a signature image for Central New York.
The photograph shows a beam of sun reflecting off five of the 11 Finger Lakes: Otisco. Skaneateles. Owasco. Cayuga. Seneca.
It embodies a feeling, an idea, about the region.
No one else has captured anything quite like it, before or since.
“Fantastic,” McCarthy remembers saying. It is the word he uses for any magnificent scene in nature, and the word he uses to summarize his life. He grew up on Tipperary Hill in Syracuse, one of six children born to John Francis McCarthy Sr., an ironworker, and his wife, Connie, who spent much of her childhood in Ireland.
The young McCarthy hardly planned to make a living taking pictures. He started college at Le Moyne and finished school a decade later in Portland, Ore. For a while, he shared his father’s trade — McCarthy worked in “high steel” on such landmarks as the Presidential Plaza — and he also spent some time in City Hall as a researcher for Mayor Lee Alexander.
The one constant: He saw himself as a storyteller. In Oregon, frustrated when he couldn’t land a writing job with a daily newspaper, he founded a weekly tabloid. He had no intention of becoming a photographer until he went into the darkroom and watched a colleague bring an image “up from nowhere.”
“I was absolutely hooked,” McCarthy said.
At 73, working from a Skaneateles gallery, he’s built a career upon landscape photography. His favorite locales are Ireland and what he calls the Finger Lakes region, which for him sprawls from greater Rochester throughout Central New York. He sees a connection: Once you leave Syracuse, McCarthy said, the green hills and farmland around the city closely resemble the vista of the Irish landscape.
He said the Upstate sun and sky can change, minute by minute. And if you truly can see the world around you, the unpredictability turns into a photographer’s blessing.
“I can go back to the same place,” McCarthy said, “and it’s totally different.”
So he does. Flip to an image in one of his books, and you might find a stark ridge of plowed snow, beneath heavy clouds just off Seneca Lake. Or a photo of golden sky and water, melding like lava, near Skaneateles. Or the pale, exquisite green of dying leaves in a vineyard in the autumn.
Still, there is no question he is most famous for his photo of five Finger Lakes, the image that causes him to laugh and say: “I’ve made a living off it for 25 years.”
He is deeply appreciative of the moment, and he said he knew — as it unfolded — it was “a gift from God.”
Two minutes of shooting resulted in about 15 negatives. One of them, McCarthy said, picks up a glint of a sixth lake, Canandaigua. But only a single shot, one precious image taken with the Rollei, captures five lakes at the exact instant when the beam of sun runs through them, in a straight line.
The negative is now in a safe deposit box. Ask about the impact it had on his career, and McCarthy will tell you the image was on the cover of a book that sold out, and that he’s sold at least 25,000 poster-sized copies of “Five Lakes Sunset,” and that’s before he even gets into the countless smaller versions, including postcards.
The photo helps provide him with independence, an artist’s greatest treasure. McCarthy, grateful, wanted to properly celebrate the 25th anniversary, and to do it meant finding the only person who was with him when it happened.
Yet it wasn’t easy hunting down Bob Scianna, the man who flew the plane.
In 1990, McCarthy needed to do some aerial photography on commission, and he hired Scianna to take him up in a Cessna 150. The plan did not involve taking a dream photograph, but McCarthy always keeps his eyes open. In the 1980s, a friend who owned a Corning bookstore, Ted Marks, turned a satellite image of all the Finger Lakes into a poster that sold tens of thousands of copies.
A similar idea was never far from McCarthy’s mind. He wondered if he could do something intimate with the lakes from a small airplane, much closer to the ground.
He did some checking, even making a call to Syracuse Hancock Airport, where an air traffic controller offered little hope: To get the image McCarthy wanted would demand going up at least 8,000 feet above the lakes, which seemed beyond reasonable expectation. Disheartened, McCarthy all but gave up on the plan.
Even so, he is self-trained to be ready for the unexpected moment, which arrived for him as he and Scianna flew over Preble. They hadn’t been in the air for long, on a cloudy winter’s day, when the sun, like a laser from the horizon, burst out and began going lake-to-lake, a scene akin to skipping some giant, golden stone.
McCarthy, overwhelmed, got Scianna’s attention:
Then McCarthy started shooting.
The photo has been displayed in galleries as far away as Utah. You can place it on the short list of possible answers to this question: What’s the best-known photo ever taken in Central New York?
Lawrence Mason, professor of photography at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, said he can think of only one potential competitor: Stephen D. Cannerelli’s image for The Post-Standard of Hakim Warrick blocking a shot in the final seconds of SU’s 2003 men’s basketball championship over Kansas.
In the end, Mason and Nick Lisi — who was director of photography at The Post-Standard for a decade — agreed on this: McCarthy’s shot is the best-known scenic image ever taken in this region.
“It’s beautiful,” said Lisi, who owns a framed copy.
A beam of sun, a brilliant spine, connecting five iconic lakes ….
And only two men, at 2,500 feet, as witnesses.
McCarthy, for that reason, wanted to find Scianna, but it was as if the pilot had vanished from the Earth. Mutual friends told McCarthy they hadn’t seen Scianna for years. Old phone numbers turned up as disconnected.
So McCarthy and a journalist teamed up for one last effort: The most recent address they had for Scianna was on Cuyler Hill, near Truxton. It meant traveling Route 80, to Route 91, to Route 13, and then using smaller two-lanes — surrounded by green hills — until McCarthy found himself on a narrow road that cut through woods and meadow.
At the address listed for Scianna, there was nothing, just a mailbox in tall grass.
McCarthy decided to check with the closest neighbor he could find. A big dog in a driveway convinced him it would be wiser to keep going. The next neighbor did not answer a knock on the door. Just as McCarthy was leaving, ready to give it up, the man who owned the house came out onto his deck.
Yes, he said, Bob Scianna lived nearby, deep in the woods. Go there, he said, and you might find him home.
Or you might not. By that point, McCarthy had traveled too far to turn around. He drove back to Scianna’s lonely mailbox, and he turned his van onto a faint driveway, more of a grass-covered trail that became less and less visible as the van went up the hill.
There were moments when McCarthy wondered if the neighbor had it wrong: No one could possibly be living in a location so remote.
Then McCarthy rounded a bend, and there it was.
He’d found a residence in the wild, half-trailer and half-cabin, a place reinforced with wood and timber. For a moment he couldn’t tell if anyone was home, until — through a front window — he saw the outline of a man. “Bob!” shouted McCarthy, and out came Bob Scianna.
He was shirtless, barefoot, deeply tanned, a 72-year-old man with gray hair and a gray beard. Scianna seemed glad to find someone at his door — “I don’t get many visitors,” he said — but he offered no hint that he knew McCarthy.
Sure, he said, he’d once been a pilot, and he listened as McCarthy told him about that day in Marcellus. Recognition flashed across Scianna’s face. He looked at McCarthy and said:
For the first time in a quarter-century, the two men who’d seen a ray of light unite five Finger Lakes spoke of their flight together.
Scianna led McCarthy into his home. He has a generator, but that’s his only power. His water comes from a well he dug himself. He is a vegetarian. For the most part, he lives on what he grows in his garden, and every couple of weeks he’ll travel down to a supermarket, where he buys the Italian bread he loves to use for sandwiches.
Then he returns to this life he prefers, away from the world.
He bought the land years ago, he said, but he didn’t move up there until his son was out of high school, until Scianna had retired from his last job as a truck driver.
“To me, nature is reality,” he said. “The city is artificial, like a machine.”
Winter or summer, he said, each day is “serene.” He reads a lot. He loves to walk. He plays solitary guitar. His only company, for years, was his dogs. First there was Jenna, gone now for a long time, and then Maggie, who died last year. He’s built a great stone cairn for their remains, and speaking of them caused Scianna a visible shiver of pain.
“When Jenna died,” he said, “I almost died with her. I can’t go through that again.”
While he said he is content, he clearly enjoyed an afternoon with company. McCarthy said he’d heard Scianna had a close call in his plane, and Scianna quietly replied that it was true: He told a frightening tale of how he and a flying student barely survived a crash at the Marcellus airport in 1990, just a few months after Scianna and McCarthy saw the sun upon the lakes.
“The Creator,” Scianna said, “has shown me much mercy.”
McCarthy gave Scianna a copy of the famous image, and Scianna marveled at it for a long time. The photo, he said, is “divinely inspired.” He walked outside as McCarthy prepared to leave, and he thanked him again for making him a part of this anniversary.
“It’s so beautiful,” said Scianna, of the image of five lakes. “I’m just glad it came to someone like him.”