A Photographic Record of the Southampton Summer Colony

Posted on 07 May 2014

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 A young Jacqueline Bouvier leads her pony at the horse show.    Bert Morgan

By Stephen J. Kotz

When members of Southampton’s summer colony made an appearance at the horse show, the beach club or an elegant cocktail party, chances are the photographer Bert Morgan was there to catch a flattering portrayal of their arrival.

And starting this Saturday, a collection of about 30 of those photographs, featuring the a young Jacqueline Bouvier, Gary Cooper, and Henry Ford II, will be on display through October 18 at the Southampton Historical Museum’s Rogers Mansion on Meeting House Lane in Southampton Village.

“Southampton Blue Book, 1930 to 1960: Photographs by Bert Morgan” is being shown in cooperation with Patrick Montgomery, who acquired an archival trove of some 1.5 million negatives after Mr. Morgan’s death, in 1986.

The images in the show will be combined with like number of others to be published in a book of the same name.

“He was the society photographer,” said Mary Cummings, the show’s curator. “He followed them to all their favorite spots,” whether it be in New York City, Southampton, Palm Beach, or Bermuda.”

The show will include images of a young Jacqueline Bouvier at the long vanished Southampton Riding & Hunt Club. “That is going to be a highlight,” said Ms. Cummings. “There are some very cute photos of her in her equestrian outfit.”

Others who posed for Mr. Morgan, and whose photos are among those hanging in the show, are Diana Vreeland, the influential editor of Vogue, Clark Gable, Mr. Cooper and his family, one-time New York governor and presidential candidate Al Smith, and Tony Duke, who died just last week, and his brother, Angier Biddle Duke.

Mr. Morgan was able to penetrate the inner circles of high society and win his subjects’ trust with his professionalism and discretion, according to Ms. Cummings. Because he presented his subjects in a flattering way, they were all too happy to oblige him if he asked them to pose for a photo as they entered places like the Southampton Bathing Corporation.

“What is interesting is he really got to know them all. He wasn’t paparazzi, he wasn’t crashing these events, he was invited,” she continued. “He attributed his success to getting to know these people everywhere they went.”

“He wasn’t one of them, but they liked him,” Mr. Montgomery said of Mr. Morgan’s relationship with his subjects.

“Bert’s business was basically selling pictures to his subjects,” he continued. “As people came into an event, he would ask them pose. He would then send them a contact sheet and you could order prints. If you stopped ordering prints he stopped taking your photo.”

Mr. Morgan also sold prints of his high society celebrity photos to magazines such as Town & Country, Vogue and Vanity Fair. Mr. Morgan was in demand as a wedding photographer as well as being the official photographer of the New York Racing Association, which gave him still more opportunities to photograph the rich and famous with their thoroughbreds at the track.

Mr. Morgan, who was born in 1904, immigrated to the United States from England with his parents. As a young man, he bought his first camera for $7 in a pawnshop and got his start taking photographs for Chicago newspapers.

After moving to New York, he soon became a society photographer, whose career would span three distinct periods, the 400, Café Society, and the Jet Set, according to Ms. Cummings.

As the formal balls given by members of the 400 gave way to the more public, and more inclusive, entertaining of the Café Society, who gathered in fashionable hot spots like the Stork Club and extended invitations to movie stars and other performers, Mr. Morgan was there.

Early on, he used a 4-by-5-inch format camera and would cram as many glass plates as he could fit into his pockets for a shoot. When he ran out of plates, he called it a day. He later moved to standard film, but still used large format Speed Graphic cameras for some time before making the switch to smaller format film.

“People were more respectful of cameras back then,” said Mr. Montgomery of Mr. Morgan’s early years and the ease with which he was able to get people to pose for him. “As you move forward, the photos become more candid. It goes from a very formal, respectful approach to more the kind of paparazzi stuff we are used to seeing today.”

Mr. Montgomery is a documentary filmmaker who began buying the archives of photographers and filmmakers in the late 1980s. “I was a customer,” he said. “I thought it would be more fun to be on the other hand of the equation.”

After Mr. Morgan died, his son, who had joined him in the business, kept it going, but eventually decided that he wanted out. When Mr. Montgomery learned the archive was for sale, he made a deal “and drove down to Palm Beach with a truck and picked it up.”

The more than a million images were well organized “with a massive card catalog like you’d find at a public library,” he said.

“He went out and shot every day for 50 years,” Mr. Montgomery said. “He shot the rich and the famous but also the rich and not famous.”

Admission to “Southampton Blue Book, 1930 to 1960: Photographs by Bert Morgan” is free to members of the Southampton Historical Museum and $4 for adults. Young people 17 and under are admitted for free.  The Rogers Mansion at 17 Meetinghouse Lane is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Ticket holders to the society’s “Insiders View of Southampton Homes” will be guests at a special preview of the Morgan exhibit on May 31 from 4:30 to 6 p.m. A public opening reception will be held at the museum on June 7 from 4 to 6 p.m. For more information, call (631) 283-2494 or visit www.southamptonhistoricalmuseum.org.

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