Flying high above Tampa: Family donates aerial news photographer’s work to Tampa Bay History Center

Tampa historians have long turned to the massive Burgert Brothers Collection of photographs spanning from the 1890s through early 1960s for glimpses of the city’s past.

Soon those who wish to travel to Tampa’s more recent past will have another photographic archive to explore, this one chronologically picking up where the Burgert Brothers photographs trail off.
 
This new trove of images is made available thanks to the camerawork of legendary Tampa aerial photographer Bill Morris, who took thousands of photographs over the Tampa Bay Area from the mid-1960s through mid-1990s.

Hundreds of these images were published in The Tampa Tribune and The Tampa Times under the credit line “Selbypic” (a clever portmanteau meaning “sell by the picture”) and told dramatic stories all their own in ways the printed word never could.
 
Bill Morris passed away in 2006 at the age of 82, but his widow, Peggy, recently donated thousands of images, negatives, and other material to the Tampa Bay History Center, covering decades and memorializing for all time the way Tampa looked during the latter half of the 20th century.
 
Tampa Bay History Center Historian and Curator Rodney Kite-Powell, who is still poring through the contents of the Bill Morris photography collection, estimates there are somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 images to examine. That would make the Morris archive similar in size to the number of developed and publicly accessible images from the iconic Burgert Brothers Collection.
 
“It is among the most important photographic collections in the region,” Kite-Powell asserts. “The Burgerts are number one, simply because they documented the birth and growth of modern Tampa. But given the incredible growth in the area during the second half of the 20th century and Morris' role in documenting that growth, this collection is number two.”
 
Kite-Powell describes the collection as consisting of “mostly negatives” but also containing prints and 35-millimeter slides showing views of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. 

“Given the size of the collection, we would probably attempt to enlist an outside company to digitize the collection, along the same lines of what we did with the [Touchton family] map collection,” says Kite-Powell. “If we do that, which would require securing funding for that project, we could probably have the collection digitized in a matter of months. But it would still need to be cataloged, which would take much longer.”
 
He adds, “We are incredibly honored that the family felt we were the right home for this collection, and we want to be good stewards of this collection. The family already did a lot of work in organizing the collection, but there is still a lot of work to do.” 

Kite-Powell and his team at the Tampa Bay History Center will decide in the coming months on how to present the images to the public, though any exhibition or dissemination of the photographs could come only after more of the collection has been digitized and cataloged. 

“The collection would be as groundbreaking as the Burgert Brothers Collection [at the Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative] is currently,” Kite-Powell says. 

Remembering Tampa’s eye in the sky
 
Many recall Bill Morris for the incredible photographs he took for The Tampa Tribune and its sibling afternoon edition The Tampa Times. The morning Tribune ceased publication in 2016 while the afternoon Times folded in 1982.
 
When Morris passed away on October 4, 2006, the Kansas-born World War II veteran left behind wife Peggy, five children, and more than 30 years of photographs and memories with countless friends he made at The Tampa Tribune and The Tampa Times.
 
“Bill Morris was a World War II pilot who flew dive bombers and torpedo planes over the South Pacific theater,” remembers retired columnist Steve Otto, who entertained Tribune and Times readers for more than 45 years with his lighthearted yet honest takes on Tampa culture and life in general. Otto went on many flights with Morris in the daredevil photographer’s doorless Cessna 172, which he often flew at virtual hovers at altitudes as low as 75 feet.
 
“The first time I flew with him was over the Skyway Bridge,” Otto remembers. “He banked and my first concern was that he was going to tip out of the plane,” he reminisces with a laugh.
 
“He had his hands on the camera, so he’d be flying the plane with his knees to get the right shot. I’m up there and suddenly I hear this buzzing sound, and I ask Bill what that was, and he said it was the ‘stall warning!’ ”

The red-and-white 4-seater single-engine plane’s speedometer registered as low as 40 miles per hour. “But we were going a lot slower than that.”
 
Otto says he and Morris went on several aerial escapades together. “Every time I was terrified. He may have been a great pilot, but he was crazy!”

Always in the air taking pictures

Photojournalist John Coffeen was another Tribune mainstay who took to the skies with Morris many times over a 21-year career.
 
“Bill Morris was already a Tampa Tribune character when I became a staff photographer in August of 1975,” recalls Coffeen. “As I was learning about the people already on the photo staff, I would bring up the Selbypic photo credit that would pop up every now and then in the paper and ask, ‘Who was this guy?’”

He soon learned the name behind Selbypic was Bill Morris, a man whose aerial photographs Coffeen says were “unusual, exotic, and provided a perspective unique to any situation” in the days before aerial drone photography became commonplace.
 
Coffeen says Morris could take to the air from Peter O. Knight Airport on Davis Island within minutes whenever needed. “It appeared he was always in the air taking pictures.” 

Among the many memories Coffeen shares are those of his flights with Morris, including one return flight to Tampa from an assignment in Sarasota.
 
“He's pointing out things of interest on the return trip -- actually shouting, when he sees something in the Bay that he thinks needs a closer inspection. I could only catch a word or two when, all of a sudden, we're doing a crash dive toward the water. I'm strapped in, but my body still goes up as the plane dives down. Bill is still saying something, but I can't hear him and I'm thinking the worst. Typically, when I tell this story I say we brushed the water before he pulled up but, in actuality, I know there were several feet below us before we began the just-as-quick assent.”
 
Coffeen goes on, “Once we land, we are old buddies. I survived with all my faculties and my food. He then describes the faint aroma inside his plane as being from past passengers who hadn't and describes the follow-up cleanup effort required on his part.”

The view from the city desk
 
Tampa attorney Joe Registrato, a former Tampa Tribune City Editor whose career at the newspaper spanned 16 years, remembers Morris as someone who looked every bit the part of daredevil aerial photographer.
 
“Bill was a really colorful character. He told stories about leaning out of his plane to get the best shots he could get. He was really helpful to us with our stories, including those where we were covering news about the Port [of Tampa],” Registrato says. “People don’t really know how big that port is, but he took some memorable photos of the entire port, including some of the major port collisions.”
 
Morris’ images covered the gamut of the city beat, including some he says were “really inspiring.”
 
“Bill would come barreling into the [Tampa Tribune office] a couple times a week with a stack of photos ready to go,’’ Registrato recalls. “There was no question he had the skill to get some really good photos.” 
 

Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Tampa. He earned his BA in English from the University of South Florida and spent more than three years as a full-time copywriter for a local internet marketing firm before striking out on his own to write for various blogs and periodicals, including TheFunTimesGuide, CoinValue and COINage magazine. He has also authored local history books, including Images of America: Tampa's Carrollwood and Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations, which are two titles produced by Arcadia Publishing.