A Collection of Cameras and a Lifetime of Adventures

Ann Morse was just 5 years old when she fell in love with photographs. While visiting her grandmother that summer, Ann became enamored with an unusual new toy: a stereoscope. As soon as Ann saw those 3-D images pop up through the viewer, she was hooked.

“It was captivating. There’s something about freezing history–being able to look back in time, in 3-D, no less–it’s like a magic show,” Ann said. “A few years later, I bought my first camera. It was a Bakelite one-click Donald Duck camera. I bought it myself with $1 and two cereal box tops!”

Although Ann has upgraded her cameras over the years, the Donald Duck one-click is still part of her large collection on display in her home at The Hill at Whitemarsh. By Ann’s own estimation, she owns well over 100 cameras now–some of which are displayed in her home at The Hill, while others remain in storage.

“People always ask me if I’ve ever used all of the cameras I’ve collected over the years, and the answer is ‘no,’ although I did keep the ones I used, including my first SLR. Those are the most sentimental.”

While the cameras themselves are remarkable, it’s more about what they represent to Ann, who has been a working artist her whole life. After graduating from Vassar College, Ann didn’t want to get married right away like many of her friends; instead, she wanted to become an artist, and she was hired as an assistant at an art gallery in New York City that specialized in American art.

“It was an uphill battle to be a woman and have a life that didn’t include the proverbial white picket fence at that time,” said Ann. “I was more bohemian and I loved working at the art gallery six days a week. I took drawing classes at night up the street at The Art Students League. That was total immersion! After about a year, however, I knew it was time for my next adventure.”

So Ann bought a ZEISS Contaflex camera, one of the first SLR cameras on the market, and headed out across the Atlantic for Madrid. There, she lived with a Spanish family and rented a small art studio. She married an Italian engineer, became a mother, and continued to hone her craft as a photographer and an artist. It was in Madrid that Ann learned to develop her own negatives, spending hours in the darkroom printing and eventually creating her own techniques for the process.

“Once I started working in the darkroom, making pictures became a whole new experience. The skill set required in developing and printing my own photographs was an ongoing challenge that I loved. Photographers who print their own work have what I call an opportunity for a ‘second shot’ at creativity. The opportunity to create a new image from a negative that so often modifies what one has seen through the lens, that is the magic of the darkroom for me,” Ann said.

Her first exhibit was at the Cultural Center of North America in Madrid in 1980, where she had over 80 photographs on display. The photos were black and white and the subject was modern dance, concentrating on studio work and rehearsals as part of her exploration into the creative process. Later, she published a book of her photos of ancient olive trees in Mallorca, Spain, that reminded her of “magnificent warriors” and “twisted living sculptures.”

After 22 years in Spain, Ann decided that it was time to move back to the United States for a new chapter and a new adventure. She settled in Millbrook, New York, and visited flea markets throughout the Hudson Valley, where she almost always came across an interesting camera.

“I really started to collect cameras when I moved back to the States,” she said. “Millbrook was a major antique hub and a great place for collectors. Many people were starting to collect photographs at that time, but not cameras. As people in the area got to know me, they started gifting me their old cameras–Leicas, Argus C3, Rolleiflex, Brownies, Kodak box cameras. They were all fabulous.”

Many of the cameras that Ann discovered were often being sold for only $5 and most are no longer manufactured, long since becoming antiques themselves. Her oldest one is a 19th century Kodak Panoram camera. Each one is special to her and is infused with its own personality. Sometimes she would find undeveloped rolls of film in these cameras and would develop them in her darkroom. While there was nothing spectacular found on those rolls, she enjoyed the process of getting to develop photos she hadn’t taken.

As Ann continued to add to her growing camera collection, she was also exhibiting in solo and group exhibitions at galleries and art centers in the tri-state area, as well as being commissioned for commercial projects.

“I mainly concentrated on three different types of images: black-and-white photos of different dance companies, with attention to the sweat equity of dance; portraits and landscapes shot in color; and I always just shoot what catches my eye,” explained Ann.

During this time, Ann also began acquiring photographs at auctions and purchasing prints from various photographer friends. Her photograph collection spans from early 19th century daguerreotypes and tintypes to the present.

Ann decided to move to The Hill in January 2021 and has quickly immersed herself in the local art culture in and around Philadelphia. She is now part of a focus group at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, while continuing to be a part of The Morgan Library’s photo collecting group in New York City. She’s also joined the photography club at The Hill and recently gave a lecture about black-and-white photography.

When asked if she thinks she’ll ever stop taking photos, Ann doesn’t hesitate before responding.

“I’ll never stop taking photographs. Now with digital, it’s a new ballgame. We’re all using our iPhones, and everyone is a photographer now. And why not? There’s so much to capture.”