Remembering Liliane De Cock Morgan, Photographer, assistant to Ansel Adams

Liliane De Cock Morgan by Ansel AdamsLiliane De Cock Morgan, a child of World War II Belgium who later became a vital part of the west coast fine photography world and photographic assistant to Ansel Adams, before continuing her career in the New York area, died quietly in her home in Wiscasset, Maine, due to complications from cancer, on May 25th.  She was 73 and had moved to Maine in 2010 from Ridgefield, Connecticut.

In Morgan’s 1973 monograph, Ansel Adams described her photography in the introduction: “De Cock presents to us a personal, private world.  It is a world of individualistic beauty and intensity. She communicates to all who will respond; she relates to no particular pattern of concept or execution.  Hers is fine photography—and what more can one say?”  Their association had begun a decade earlier when photographer Brett Weston had recommended Morgan for a short-term position spotting prints for his Portfolio IV.  Adams wrote, “I was quite impressed with her work from the start and with her perseverance in finishing off some four thousand prints.  She stayed on with me for a little more than nine years…” Morgan was a full-time photographic assistant to Adams from 1963 to 1972, and lived nearby the Adams home in Carmel, California.

During this time working with Adams she printed his master works, prepared prints for exhibitions, travelled with him to capture images, instructed in summer workshops, and was an integral part of the social environment that connected scores of artists, intellectuals, and conservationists of that time.  Between 1964 and 1967 Morgan supported Adams and Nancy Newhall as they captured images and stories for Fiat Lux, the University of California system’s centennial book.  Along the way she learned the craft of photography by apprenticeship as well as through her own experience traveling throughout the United States.  It was a remarkable ascent considering her challenging beginnings.

Born September 11, 1939 in a suburb of Antwerp, daughter of a milkman and a mother she never met, Morgan lived with the rigors of wartime northern Europe.  During the war she and other children were sent to orphanages in the south of Belgium to be safe from potential bombing.  These separations left a lasting impact on Morgan. After the war she grew up amidst hunger, family strife, and a succession of stepmothers.  At age 14 she left home and never returned. She finished secondary school through her own perseverance, but was unable to fulfill her dream of a university education.  Instead, she worked factory jobs, including time in the darkroom at Gevaert, a company that made photographic materials and is now part of AGFA, saving money until she could legally leave the country without parental consent at age 21.  Within two months of her birthday in 1960 she was aboard a ship to New York to begin a new life, a vision she had held since the age of 12.

Within days her life had truly set on a dramatic new course.  On the boat she met photographer Brett Weston, son of Edward Weston, who was then traveling on a Guggenheim Fellowship.  By the end of the voyage they had formed what would become a life-long friendship with big implications for Morgan’s new life.  She spent less than a year in New York, before moving to California where, after only minor dabbling in photography as a hobby, she was introduced to Ansel Adams by Weston.

As described by the Joseph Bellows Gallery: “Under the guidance of Ansel Adams and with a 4 x 5 inch camera lent to her by the artist, Morgan began photographing the landscape and soon developed a unique vision and printing style which utilizes the full tonal scale of the medium with a strong attention to the melancholic values.”  Each year Adams would grant Morgan 3-6 weeks of vacation in which she would travel alone around the continental United States capturing images of rural America.

Morgan’s skill grew as she also contributed more to the photographic community of that time. In personal correspondence Ansel Adams, in the mentor role, once wrote, “I have unlimited faith in you as a person and as a photographer!!”  She eventually instructed in and coordinated the Ansel Adams Yosemite Workshops and was a founding trustee of the Friends of Photography, among other contributions.  By the early 1970s she was recognized as a fine photographer. She received a number of awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1972. Her important early solo exhibitions included the George Eastman House (1970), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1971), the Witkin Gallery (1972), the University of Rhode Island (1972), and the Amon Carter Museum (1973), among other venues.

Morgan left Carmel in 1972 after her marriage to Douglas Morgan, publisher of Ansel Adams’ early technical photography books, who she had met during a workshop in Yosemite Valley.  She moved to Dobbs Ferry, New York, and later to Pound Ridge, New York where she started a family and became enmeshed in the Morgan family businesses.  Working with Douglas and her brother-in-law, Lloyd Morgan, at Morgan & Morgan publishers and Morgan Press, she edited over a dozen monographs of prominent photographers, edited the Photo Lab Index, and contributed to many other fine photography titles.  At the same time she became master printer for her mother-in-law, famed dance photographer Barbara Morgan, who, along with her deceased husband, Willard Morgan, had been a colleague and friend of Ansel Adams for over 40 years.

During this time Morgan shifted much of her personal creativity towards raising her only son, Willard Morgan.  She studied cooking techniques from around the world, nurtured a small menagerie of domestic animals, and continued a hobby from her Carmel days of discovering unique treasures at flea markets and antique stores.  Photographically, she tried her hand at architectural photography, documented summers at Camp Treeptops in Lake Placid, New York, and experimented with still life scenes.  Morgan issued a limited edition portfolio of her most prominent work in the early 1980s and had her last solo exhibition in her homeland of Belgium at FotoMuseum Antwerpen in 1991.  A number of later books, including the History of Women Photographers by Naomi Rosenblum (1994), recognized Morgan’s contribution to the world of photography.

After a divorce in 1997, Liliane moved and remained connected to photography as a technician in a custom photo lab in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where she transitioned from black and white darkroom technique to the new technology of digital printing, learning full color techniques as well. In 2002 Morgan attended the Ansel Adams Centennial in Yosemite Valley where she spoke in a panel of all the living former photographic assistants.  She was one of only two women who held that role for Adams (the other being Morgan’s close friend, Gerry Sharpe).

In 2010, Morgan retired from full-time work and moved to Wiscasset, Maine where she enjoyed being near family and the big sky vistas of the ocean.  Morgan is survived by her son, Willard Morgan, his wife, Jenn Barton, and her granddaughters Sierra Morgan (6 years) and Zella Morgan (6 months), all of Alna, ME.  In addition to her son, she is survived by five stepchildren: Adele Morgan, Eric Morgan, Lael Morgan, Seth Morgan, Jennifer Morgan, and their families.  A private service will be held this summer.

Contact
Willard Morgan
P.O. Box 35
Alna, ME  04578
207-586-5144
willardseanmorgan@gmail.com