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Hamptons Life

Aug 10, 2018 11:26 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Morris Studio's 'Unseen Collection' Goes On View At Southampton History Museum

An unknown glass plate from the former Morris Studio. COURTESY MARY GODFREY
Aug 13, 2018 11:30 AM

Some were stored in wooden boxes scattered throughout the shuttered Main Street shop, or buried behind piles of newer photography and framing materials. Others were shoved under the developing tanks in the former dark room. Still more were uncovered inside decades-old cigar boxes hidden in the nooks and crannies of a building more than a century old.

“As we were closing down and getting out of the building, we found box after box after box,” recalled Neal Thomason, the former owner of the Morris Studio, which closed its doors in Southampton Village last winter after 125 years in business. “And when we thought we were almost done, we found another 20 boxes in a corner.”

The spoils of his search, completed with the help of former longtime studio employee Mary Godfrey?

Thousands of glass plate negatives, most dating back to early last century, and some going as far back as the 1890s, when the photography studio first opened its doors, as well as many newer negatives made from film. Most of the glass plate negatives measure 8 by 10 inches, though there are smaller 4-inch-by-5-inch versions mixed in as well.

All offer unique snapshots of the long-forgotten and formerly rural Hamptons, as well as the people who called it home between the last decade of the 1800s and the start of World War II.

Dozens of never-before-seen photographs reproduced using those recently unearthed negatives, and several select samples of the surviving glass contraptions themselves, will be the centerpieces of an upcoming year-long exhibition appropriately titled “Morris Studio: The Unseen Collection, Photographs of Southampton, 1892-1940.”

Opening on Saturday, August 18, and hosted by the Southampton Historical Museum at the Rogers Mansion on Meeting House Lane, the exhibition will feature hundreds of new images that will be rotated every four months, according to Mr. Thomason.

In addition to local landscapes, such as the then-undeveloped stretch of Montauk Highway that runs along Shinnecock Bay between Southampton Village and Hampton Bays, the photography exhibition will feature family portraits, including those taken by George Morris, the founder of the studio that opened in 1892 and was most recently owned by Mr. Thomason and his late father, Jim Thomason.

In fact, Neal Thomason said that most of the family portraits, or roughly 90 percent of those estimated 5,000 negatives they’ve uncovered thus far, were taken either by Mr. Morris or members of the Morris family.

“We are really trying to sort the best ones out of the collection,” Mr. Thomason said, noting that he and Ms. Godfrey, who is curating the upcoming exhibition, only recently stumbled across another group of boxes containing additional negatives. “We are planning to do a coffee table-style book later on using the best images.”

Most, if not all, of the images have never been viewed by the public before and offer unique snapshots of local farms, families and the communities that make up the Hamptons, according to organizers. Tom Edmonds, the executive director of the Southampton History Museum, said the exhibition will offer a “fresh look” at both the town and those who inhabited it more than a century ago.

“This glimpse into our shared past is both eerie and fascinating,” he said in a release. “Anyone looking at these images will identify with them, even if they are not from Southampton.”

“We want people to come in and tell the stories that these pictures are showing,” Mr. Thomason added. “Most of these have never been seen in the last 90 or 100 years, so any information we can get on the history of them, the families and the buildings shown in them, would be great.”

Explaining that he was still reviewing the cache of newfound negatives, Mr. Thomason said he was not yet prepared to say which ones would serve as the exhibition’s centerpieces. He did venture that they found a large number of landscape photos taken immediately after the powerful hurricane of 1938 made landfall. They also have an impressive image of Main Street in Southampton where the area directly behind the row of shops is covered with sprawling farmland.

There’s also the aforementioned photograph of Montauk Highway near the Shinnecock Reservation, when the surrounding area was “completely undeveloped,” Mr. Thomason said. “We can go to that spot now, and you can barely see the water,” he added. “Back then, you could see the water. It’s kind of neat to see the Hamptons’ more country side.”

Ms. Godfrey opened her own business, Mary Godfrey Photography Printing & Custom Framing on Jobs Lane in Southampton Village, after the Morris Studio permanently closed its doors. She also has her own selections that she would like to see on display.

“My favorites are the portraits,” Ms. Godfrey shared. “They’re just so beautiful. The way the people were positioned and the way they dressed. It’s just gorgeous.”

She said they found family portraits taken as recently as the 1990s, noting that a series of newer film negatives features members of her husband, James Stover’s, family. “Pretty much we have all of the wedding negatives of any family that was ever photographed by the Morris Studio,” Ms. Godfrey added.

That is why deciding which images will be part of the initial display, as well as the subsequent ones after those are rotated, has proven to be a difficult task. A potential solution could be the use of a projector, Mr. Thomason said. In addition to reprinting old photographs, organizers are now debating whether they should project a group of slowly rotating images onto one of the Rogers Mansion’s walls.

As is to be expected, some of the glass negatives are cracked and others are broken, but there are still plenty to choose from, according to both Ms. Godfrey and Ms. Thomason.

“We were aware of the negatives—we weren’t aware of just how many there were. And we weren’t aware of all of their locations” said Mr. Thomason, explaining that both he and his late father were planning to one day dig through the negatives.

“We’re still counting,” he added.

The opening reception for “Morris Studio: The Unseen Collection, Photographs of Southampton 1892-1940” will run from 4 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, August 18, at the Rogers Mansion, 17 Meeting House Lane, Southampton. There is no cost to attend and refreshments will be served.

Exhibition hours will be 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, through August 2019. Entry costs $4 for the general public; there is no charge for members and those age 17 and younger.

In addition to viewing the upcoming exhibit, attendees will have the opportunity to purchase the images on display, though costs are still undetermined. Those interested should visit Ms. Godfrey’s website, www.marygodfreyphotography.com, which will feature a link for those interested in buying photographs.

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This is fantastic !! Thank you Neal an Mary for all your hard work to bring this exhibit to the community. Our history is important .

Coffee table style book is such a great idea. Looking forward to that.
By toes in the water (738), southampton on Aug 14, 18 6:48 AM
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