The Verne Morton Collection
A Photographer Who Made the Commonplace Compelling
Verne Morton of Groton, New York, took his first photograph in 1896 when he was 26 or 27 years old. He was born on October 9, 1869 in Groton, where he lived most of his 77 bachelor years in that house at Old Stage Road, except when he boarded out of town as a schoolteacher. Verne gave up teaching after a few years and concentrated efforts on trying to make a business based on photography. His top priority was photographing the outdoors. His letterhead stationery listed his specialties: “Finger Lakes Views, Nature Study, Farm Scenes, Cover Designs, (and) Book and Magazine Illustrations.” Verne had a deep and enduring interest in nature. His knowledge of botany was extensive. He knew experts from academic specializations in these fields at nearby Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He also produced scenes for sale on commission as postcards and paperweights in various regional stores and for educational institutions, such as the George Junior Republic near Freeville, New York, and the Groton High School. He took individual and group portraits. He made photographs of house and camp interiors. His photographs also provided visual interest for advertisements, and graced the covers of magazines such as Farming, Rural Life and Farm Stock Journal, and The Rural New Yorker.
We do not know if Verne had formal training in photography. However, he was studious, persistent, and intelligent. He also had a bent toward the sciences. His photographic paraphernalia in The History Center in Tompkins County includes reference materials such as Cramer’s Manual on Negative Making and Formulas that, in addition to sales messages, prices, and ordering information for photographic dry plates, gave information on topics such as camera exposures and f-stops, developing processes for negatives, and “failures and their remedies.”
While little is known about Verne’s facilities for photo finishing, at least one student of his work suggested that he “perhaps at the start of his career as a photographer … was self-taught, learning a primitive ‘kitchen’ style of photography because he had no darkroom. He supposedly washed his prints in the watering trough and used sunlight for exposure, making do with what was readily available.” However he may have started, Verne did set up a photography darkroom. A small room in the brothers’ home was set aside for developing and printing. The few prints that survive testify that Verne was a good technician (Vanas, 1984).
As seen in his images archived at The History Center, Verne Morton could be a fussy photographer. He was shy and reticent, a mannerly person who was polite, but often remote and solitary. In photographing nature, he liked to arrange and to compose and to wait patiently for the light and atmospheric conditions to be “just so” before he tripped his shutter. He brought the same approach to many of his photographs that contained humans. People who had appeared in his pictures were said to complain about his slow, deliberate pace.
Verne Morton’s pastoral scenes are wonderful; his working scenes are magnificent. Both approaches reveal a photographer who had the right artistic instincts to compose a quiet scene that endures but who also was able to snatch an image that captures the essence of satisfying, self-sufficient work in the countryside.
While most of the industrial growth was happening elsewhere, Verne Morton’s photography in Groton, New York for the most part quietly stressed his regional, rural roots. Verne carefully documented traditional and ordinary ways of life that had been followed for decades. His knack for making the commonplace compelling fits the artistic temperament of the times. “Local colorist” artists and writers all over the country were documenting societal change and saving memories of ways of life that soon would change forever, irretrievably. Verne adapted his photography in later years to favor the newer, smaller, lighter, hand held cameras and the convenient films they held. Toward the end of his life, he adopted color film, just after it became available. However, his contemporaries would never have described Verne Morton’s photography as daring, avant-garde, or dramatic. In his quiet, reserved, and serious way, Verne Morton left a visual legacy of a dying era, but an era that continues to speak to contemporary society as a time that had many attractive, fine qualities of community, society, and natural harmony with the environment.
Excerpts from: Ellen Vanas’, “The Photographer,” Images of Rural Life: Photographs of Verne Morton. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1984; Gretchen Sachse, Giddy-up Napoleon, It Looks Like Rain: A Look at Farming in Tompkins County, exhibit notes for an A. D. 1883 Barn Exhibit by Constance Saltonstall and Victoria Romanoff, Newfield, New York, October 17-31, 1992; and Louis C. Jones, “Foreword,” Images of Rural Life: Photographs of Verne Morton. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1984.