Like the preacher’s proverbial naughty son, Delta is being a very, very bad dog—not at all a cooperative model. His owner, Stacey Morgan, has three expensive cameras, all Nikons—one with regular film, one with infrared film and an orange filter, and one digital (her first one, just purchased)—slung around her slim shoulders. She tries to scissor herself down as low as she can go into the wet meadow grass to get a better angle.
Delta, a nine-year-old Hungarian Vizsla with the lean angularity of a basketball player, is sitting halfway between Morgan and a rambling stack of large hay bales in the middle of a field near Chester Springs.
Morgan is an outgoing professional who shoots dogs (with her camera) for a living. Attached to the bales is a large American flag that had once draped Morgan’s grandfather’s casket, and Morgan wants the low angle to frame Delta, the flag, and the hay against the clear blue morning sky.
Delta has tolerated the first five minutes of being a poster dog, but now he knows that Morgan has treats for him in her left vest pocket. Her normal dog subjects are generally easier. After she exhausts them a bit with some exercise, most will be quiet while Morgan shoots, immortalizing them for grateful owners.
“I”m a full-frame person,” she explained earlier, cropping in the camera the way classicists such as Cartier-Bresson did, and almost never in the dark room. That means her position relative to her portrait subject, the antsy Delta, is important. But he is starting to flinch like a horse in a starting gate.
“Stay,” Morgan orders in her most officious voice, “Stay, Delta.”
But Delta is having none of it, and, time after time, he leaps up and trots toward her after only a click or two of the shutter. Finally, she calls a recess, and Delta, after mouthing a final munchie, trots off to see if any rabbits are hiding among the bales.
Morgan was not born with a camera in her hand, but, after an early childhood stint as Morgan the Magician, she got her first one in the 7th grade. “As soon as I saw that first image come up in the darkroom,” she says, “I knew I wanted to be a photographer.”
And she has been one ever since, first as a newspaper shooter for several major dailies, including a full-time stint with The New York Times, and currently as a fine art photographer at her home studio on a suburban street in Wayne.
While her insightful dog and animal photography (“PETraits”) are most in demand, she also does haunting landscapes and other fine art projects and commissions. She has also received assignments to document people’s estates—”propertyscapes,” she calls them. And, on the side, she occasionally boards dogs for a few days at her Dogville Bed & Biscuit.
“I grew up near here, on Valley Forge Mountain,” she says over a cup of coffee in her photo-lined living room. “I was a real tomboy. I took shop, instead of home ec.”
She also was the official family photographer, recording all events with her Voightlander Vitessa or a Kodak 110. Then she upgraded to a Canon 35, which she used for her high school newspaper and yearbook and while attending “my mom’s college,” Cedar Crest, a small liberal arts school in Allentown. She graduated in 1982. Morgan spent her sophomore year at the Rochester Institute of Technology and her junior year abroad at London Polytechnic.
Along the way she met a photographer who was a veteran of Vietnam. “He told me, ‘Everyone in the industry uses Nikons, and if you ever want to borrow a nice piece of glass”—aka, an expensive, fast lens—‘you should switch brands now,”” Morgan says. “I did, and have been a Nikon consumer ever since.”
In July 1988, she took a month off to live with the Great American Circus for a major photo project. “I would process my film on the road,” she says, “often in the restrooms of gas stations. I would stuff towels under the door.”
“Then I got married in 1991 and lived in Manhattan, then moved to Connecticut,” she says. There she shot for local magazines and “applied the principles of photojournalism to weddings.” When her husband, who was in finance, was transferred to a bank job in Southeast Asia, she used the opportunity to shoot the rice fields of Sulawesi in Indonesia.
The marriage ended, and she and her young twins moved back to Pennsylvania. “They’re nine now, a boy and a girl, Grady and Paige,” she says. “They were born in the middle of the night, Grady on August 26 and Paige on the 27th, so they each have their own birthday.”
While getting herself re-established as a photographer, she worked as the children’s program administrator at the Wayne Art Center. Morgan’s mother is a painter, so Morgan is connected to the area art scene and has her photos represented in local art galleries. Eventually, though, she began to build her own freelance business, gaining contacts and expanding her portfolio.
Her experience with the deadline demands of photojournalism, the opportunity to be immersed in longterm projects, and the training and experience in fine art photography has left Morgan with an esthetic uniquely her own.
Morgan shoots in black-and-white, but handpaints the photos where she wants color. The edges of finished prints are framed in rough, oreo strips of black-and-white. While many are stand-alone studies—the distance between lens and object carefully calculated—some of her best works are groupings of six-to-eight varied but coordinated shots of a single topic. She may be a photographer, but she has the eye of an art director.
With these groupings, Morgan says she “hearkens back to journalism. I like to tell a little story” of what she has gleaned from her rolls of film. “I approach every job like it’s art photography, and I look for the beauty. What’s wrong with that,” she asks rhetorically.
Currently, she is working on several running projects, including ones of animals in pastures, some of them exotic, and photographs of large estates, such as Androssan on the Main Line. She also wants to do one on the aging women, like her mother, from what is called “The Greatest Generation.” Her working title is “Age of Grace.”
But now she is back at work with Delta, who has decided he is going to finally act like the photographer’s model that he is called upon to be from time to time.
With little urging, he leaps onto a hay bale, sits down and raises his noble nose into the air, posing beside the draped flag. A few days later, Morgan has hand-painted one frame from this sequence and adorned it with a black-and-white striped border. She calls it, “For Amber Waves of Grain,” and adds it to her note card series, “Support Our Troops.” A Vietnam veteran saw the shot, she says, and volunteered to frame a print to donate to the Veterans Hospital in Coatesville.
But now, back in the field, she uncoils her lithe frame, rises from the wet ground, and checks her three cameras, wiping the lens of one gently with the tail of her shirt. “I’ve not got everything I want,” she says, “but it’s good enough for now.”
She might well be assessing her career as much as the photo shoot. For, as she approaches 50, Stacey Morgan lives life the way she photographs it—cropped in the camera.