Featured Story

A past preserved on Coecles Harbor

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO | Archivist Patrick Montgomery checking framed prints from the Bert Morgan collection at his home on Little Ram Island Drive.
AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO | Archivist Patrick Montgomery checking framed prints from the Bert Morgan collection at his home on Little Ram Island Drive.

The large, framed photographs of a world vanished now 70 years or more were on the floor, propped against bookshelves in a house filled with breezes off Coecles Harbor.

Here was a striking, hawk faced woman in a bathing suit from the 1930s, there a happy couple and two children dressed to the nines, standing in sunlight for their picture as formally as in an 18th century family portrait.

But the eye was immediately drawn to two pictures of a little girl, leading a pony and just sitting in the grass. Even at the age of seven or eight she was instantly recognizable as Jacqueline Bouvier, later to add Kennedy and Onassis to her name.

Patrick Montgomery, owner of the spacious house on Little Ram Island Drive, explained that the photographs were taken by Bert Morgan, a photographer who followed high society from 1930s up to the 1980s, from Newport to Manhattan to Southampton and further south to Palm Beach.

Mr. Montgomery, who purchased the archives of the photographer and is presenting them in an exhibition at the Southampton Historical Museum running until October, has owned the house on Coecles Harbor for the past 20 years.

Once the residence of the radio legend, John Gambling Sr., Mr. Montgomery said that, this being Shelter Island, “I think it will always be known as the ‘Gambling house.’”

He and his wife Jerilyn and teenage son Alec spend summers and weekends here, he said, settling into a deep couch to talk about his work and passion of bringing the past into the present through photographs.

The native of Cincinnati made documentaries in the 1980s and ran a business, Archive Photos, buying, selling and licensing vintage photographs. His production team produced one of the first home video documentaries, “The Compleat Beatles,” still one of the classics of the form that was partly responsible for setting off Beatlemaina 2.0.

Mr. Morgan did shoot a few scenes on Shelter Island, Mr. Montgomery said, at private parties at the Rams Head Inn, but of the thousands of prints and negatives he purchased from the photographer’s son, that part of the archive had deteriorated.
They weren’t the only images that had become worthless, since a large section of the enormous Morgan archive — “Bert shot every day for fifty years” — were stored in a Florida trailer and suffered for it.

The importance of the Morgan collection is not just to ogle famous gone-by celebs, but seeing how it chronicles a change of attitude among the rich, famous (and often unspeakable) who are its subject. The collection is also a way of looking at how America has changed.

“In those days the old saying was true that the first generation makes it, the second generation spends it and the third generation blows it,” Mr. Montgomery said.

But now we’re now living though an era of new fortunes being piled up, and it might be too early to tell what future generations will do with them, he added.

Also, technology had an enormous affect on changing social attitudes, Mr. Montgomery explained. Picture taking was once an event.

“Bert shot with a very large camera, a Speed Graphic, and people had respect for the camera,” he said. “The photos have a formality about them.”

With smaller, inexpensive cameras, formality gave way to candid shots, and digital images of everything, including the ubiquitous “selfies” that, some say, has achieved the impossible by making narcissism even more disturbing.

The camera has always lied, of course, even in the formal days of high society. Speaking about the pictures against the bookshelves, Mr. Montgomery noted that the formal portrait of the sunlit happy family was actually a shot of a wealthy American widow, her two young children and a gold-digging European gigolo.

“These shots of Jackie,” he said, “came about because her mother was a real publicity hound and liked to have Bert take her picture all the time. And so now and then, he’d take one of her little girl.”

He continued to look at the pretty little rich girl, who no one then knew would grow up to be one of the most famous women in history.

Later, looking at framed photographs on the dining room walls of 19th century scenes from the Caribbean, part of another archive Mr. Montgomery has purchased, he was asked about the attraction and romance of old photographs.

He said there was nothing mystical about his work. “And I’m not nostalgic for the way things used to be, as in it was so much nicer then. I know it wasn’t.”

He was looking at a vivid image of quiet harbor snapped in a moment more than a century ago. “I love history, photography and technology,” he said.

“Southampton Blue Book, 1930 to 1960: Photographs by Bert Morgan,” is at the Southampton Historical Museum though October 18.