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Snapshots of Southampton from a century ago

"World War I Artillery  Pulled by a

"World War I Artillery  Pulled by a 1920s Crawler Tractor" at the 1936 Southampton parade is among the images featured in the exhibit. Credit: Morris Studio Collection

When young photographer George Morris  left his hometown of Sayville to set up shop in Southampton in 1892, he came with state-of-the-art equipment and the promise of paying subjects in the burgeoning resort community.

For more than a century, a steady stream of patrons came to the Morris Studio on the East End hamlet’s Main Street to have their portraits taken. The photographer and his successors captured their images on glass plates and 35 mm film negatives through last year, when the digital age led to the studio’s closing.

Highlights from the studio's impressive and telling cache of historic pictures taken under four successive owners (fathers and sons from the Morris and Thomason families) are on display in “Morris Studio: The Unseen Collection, Photographs of Southampton 1892-1940.” Half of the approximately 180 photos on view at any given time in the rotating yearlong exhibition at the Rogers Mansion in Southampton are framed for lengthy contemplation, while the remainder are featured in a looped digital montage.

“We thought we knew what we had, but when we closed, the pile kept on growing,” says the show’s curator Mary Godfrey, who worked for the studio for 18 years, starting as an intern while in high school. There were discarded boxes shoved in darkroom crevices and attic corners, she says. “We even found negatives buried in the basement’s dirt floor.”

In addition to the posed studio shots, the archive of more than 5,000 negatives documents the surrounding landscape, local pageants and parades, and the rhythms of day-to-day village life. There are also vintage images commissioned by many professional organizations in the region, including some contracted by funeral homes depicting deceased clients in their final repose. They are not part of the exhibit. 

Of particular interest are pictures of the Women’s Land Army of America, female volunteers who did patriotic duty during World War I by working the farms after many of the men had been called up to the armed services.

“A lot of them were staged,” says Godfrey, noting a shot of women chopping wood. “The wood is wrongly depicted lying down instead of standing up."

Even so, the show offers up an illuminating glimpse into Southampton’s forgotten past. “People may recognize old storefronts, nearby hotels and beach clubs,” Godfrey says. “They may even spot their relative in an old photograph of the local football team. It’s fun to hear their stories.”

WHAT “Morris Studio: The Unseen Collection, Photographs of Southampton 1892-1940”

WHEN | WHERE Through Aug.3, 2019, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, Rogers Mansion, 17 Meeting House Lane, Southampton

INFO Free-$4; 631-283-2494, southamptonhistory.org

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