The Morris Studio, which has operated in the same building on the east side of Main Street since 1898, actually opened six years earlier in 1892 when photographer George W. Morris set up shop above Madame Juliette’s Millinery Shop on the other side of the street.
A dapper fellow whose portrait shows him in bowler and bow tie assuming a jaunty, Chaplinesque pose, Morris came to Southampton at age 21 from Sayville, where he had apprenticed in photography. An up-and-coming resort for the glamorous affluent, Southampton seemed like a good bet for an up-and-coming photographer.
There was just one problem: he had left his heart behind in Sayville. Rhoda Morris, who married into the next generation of Morrises, recalled in an interview that her father-in-law rode his bicycle from Southampton to Sayville to court Miss Henrietta Corwin, whom he married in 1895. Three years later, he moved his studio across the street, and he and Henrietta settled into the upstairs apartment in the building that still houses the business. The Morris Studio thrived and so did the Morrises, who soon outgrew the apartment and moved to a spacious house on Elm Street to raise their six children.
By all accounts — and we have the photographic evidence — George Morris was a master of his craft in an era when images were still being captured on glass plates by a very complex process. Because it was essential that the plates be kept moist, Morris would float them in a sticky essence of coffee.
Out in the field, where Morris captured priceless views of Southampton’s dirt roads, vintage automobiles, and long-gone citizens engaged in forgotten pursuits, Morris would take the photographs with his primitive camera then return to his darkroom in the studio, where he mixed his own chemicals, to produce the images that are our best record of Southampton at the turn of the last century.
Indoor studio photographs were usually taken under a large skylight: alas, it is long gone. It crashed to the floor when the sent a blast of wind through the studio. Subjects were seldom immortalized without Victorian props simulating woodland glades, ornate parlors or other signs of lives comfortably or adventurously lived.
Following in their father’s footsteps, sons Wilton and Douglas later took over the business and proved nimble negotiators of the rapid advances in photography that led to its popularization. The sheer volume of film brought in by photography’s new fans prompted the decision in the 1950s to abandon the ancient art of photo finishing. At about the same time, the Morris Studio was easing out of the role it had traditionally played in documenting the local scene, concentrating rather on studio portraits and passport photos. By the mid-'60s, the business was relying on the sale of cameras, photo and art supplies and framing.
Today, the business continues to operate under the same name, at the same location, under the ownership of Jim Thomason, who has seen yet another revolutionary change in photography, as film has given way to digital. While he must keep abreast of the new, Thomason is well aware of the historic significance of the many boxes of glass plates left by George Morris now under his stewardship. As he said of the collection in an interview celebrating the Morris Studio’s centennial: “You don’t have to be a photographer to appreciate this. It’s something the whole community should see.”
Sources from the Archives: Reminiscences of Rhoda Morris, November 2006; “Images of the Hamptons Since ’92,” Suffolk Life special Bicentennial Issue, June 30, 1976; “Photographic Alchemy Preserves Images of Southampton’s Past,” The Southampton Press, April 19, 1990.