Baer learned basic commercial photography in Chicago and subsequently honed his skills as a World War II Navy combat photographer. Returning to civilian life an accomplished professional, over the next few years he developed into “one of the foremost architectural photographers in the world," receiving important commissions from some of the premier architects in post-war Central California. In the early 1970s, very much influenced by a strong friendship with Edward Weston, Baer began to concentrate on his personal landscape art photography. During the last decades of the 20th century, Baer also became a sought-after instructor in various colleges and workshops teaching the art of landscape photography.
Morley Baer's parents, Clarence Theodore Baer and Blanche Evelyn Schwetzer Baer, encouraged him in an active outdoor life growing up in Toledo. He attended the University of Toledo in 1934 and later transferred to the University of Michigan, from where he graduated in 1937 with a BA in English. He continued there in graduate school, earning an MA in Theater Arts in 1938. Baer soon found a dull but well-paying job in the advertising office of the Chicago department store Marshall Field's. Dissatisfied, he apprenticed as a low-paid menial assistant, at a greatly reduced salary, to a Michigan Avenue commercial photography company. He shortly was photographing in the field, and developing and printing photographs.
Along with two associates, Baer was sent on assignment to Colorado in 1939. He had seen an exhibition of Edward Weston’s photographs at the Katherine Kuh Galleries in January of that year, and became enamored at the sparse elegance of Weston's black-and-white prints. He resolved to meet Weston and extended his trip west to California to meet him at his studio in Carmel-by-the-Sea. The two did not meet, but Baer made the most of the trip by visiting San Francisco, the Monterey Peninsula, and the small village of Carmel.
Although he returned to Chicago, he already had applied for Art Center School while in San Francisco, but his plans were derailed by the onset of World War II. In 1941 he enlisted in the Navy almost immediately after Pearl Harbor and went through the Navy photo school at Pensacola, Florida, where he hated the stereotyped approach to making a photograph. Baer graduated, commissioned as an ensign, and was transferred to Norfolk to do a series of stories on the Atlantic Theater of operations.
The young photographer had varied duties including public relations, aircraft recon, editorial assignments, teaching, and combat photography from aircraft and carriers. Accompanied by a writer, Baer covered military operations in North Africa, southern France, Brazil, and the Caribbean Sea. In 1945 he was assigned to the operational Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, commanded by the eminent photographer Edward Steichen. Working under a variety of terrain, sea, and weather conditions, ever changing light, and new environments in physically demanding activities, he made dozens of photographs a day, and quickly perfected his technical and compositional photographic skills. When discharged from the Navy in 1946 he was a complete and confident professional photographer.
In 1945 Baer was discharged from the Navy in San Francisco and met up again Frances Manney, a young woman awaiting admission to Stanford University who had hired Baer as her photography tutor during his brief time in Norfolk. The two married, and soon splurged their remaining funds to establish a commercial photography business in a small store-front studio in Carmel in 1946.
Baer had no difficulty discovering opportunities aplenty in the booming post-war building trades. In dire need of competent photographers to illustrate their projects, builders and architects vied to hire the Baer team. As his reputation grew, he had as much work as he could handle. His published architectural photographs from that time testify to his active professional career. His clients were among the more noted Bay Area architectural firms.
Although Baer had briefly fulfilled his long-held dream of meeting Edward Weston, they had met only briefly. So, through a Weston friend sometime in 1947, Baer learned of an Ansco view camera for sale, a camera he had previously used in Chicago and was very familiar with its capabilities. Able to buy it for the then princely sum of $90, it became the camera he most used for the rest of his life. Although he had others for some assignments, the Ansco was the instrument with which he made his most memorable photographs. It became almost an extension of his photographic seeing and visualization in his later fine art landscape work.
Morley and Frances became frequent visitors to Edward Weston's home/studio in Carmel’s Wildcat Hill and with whom they had a close friendship until Weston’s death in 1958. Both Baers were very helpful to Weston in producing his monumental photographic Portfolios I and II. Morley worked closely with Edward’s son Brett Weston in making the prints, while Frances did the spotting of finished Weston’s prints. Besides being helpful to Weston, this association greatly benefited Baer’s career in the world of fine-art photography. Through Weston, a long-standing resident of California and the Bay Area, he met most of the prominent West Coast photographers. The more noted among them earlier had formed Group f/64 in San Francisco; its members included Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Willard Van Dyke, and Henry Swift, among others.
Baer again met up with Steichen in 1950 when he and Frances made a trip to New York. Although Steichen carefully examined the photographic portfolio Baer showed him, he was less than enthralled by its subject matter – their photographic sensitivities were vastly different.
Finding more work opportunities in the San Francisco area in the early fifties, the Baers sold their house on Carmelo Avenue in Carmel and re-located their photographic work to Berkeley. Shortly, Baer began to make a name for himself as a leading architectural photographer with portfolio work for architects and interior designers while freelancing for housing design magazines. Ansel Adams recruited him as an instructor at the San Francisco Art Institute, then under the direction of Minor White. When White left for the East Coast in 1953, Baer became Head of the Institute's Photography Department.
In 1953 the Baers moved into a 1920s era house in Greenwood Common that previously had been renovated by architect Rudolph Schindler for its owner, who sold it in 1951 to William Wurster, who, in turn, sold it in 1953 to Baer. Baer became very active in neighborhood affairs Showing their lifetime appreciation for landscaping, the Baers hired Lawrence Halprin to design their outdoor areas.
Baer rapidly became a sought-after architectural photographer for noted architects, including Craig Edwards, the firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), Charles Willard Moore, and William Turnbull, Jr.. Baer’s photographs of buildings by Bernard Maybeck, Greene and Greene, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Julia Morgan are considered important today in understanding American architecture and design in the first half of the 20th century.
Through the influence of Nathaniel A. Owings, SOM hired Baer to photograph US consulate buildings being constructed throughout Western Europe. The Baers and their young son moved to Spain for two years. Baer found time to produce personal work by photographing out-of-the-way locations in Andalucia. The Baer family traveled the country in a VW bus in which they camped as necessary, freeing them to go where they pleased. These photographs led to Baer’s first one-man exhibition at San Francisco’s M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in 1959 and his first published portfolio.
After he returned to California, SOM hired Baer for a large photographic survey that lasted through the mid-1960s. During this time Baer also was the architectural photographer for the pioneering Sea Ranch, California in Gualala. He contributed work for the 1965 Sierra Club publication "Not Man Apart", which also included entries from artists such as Robinson Jeffers, Dorothea Lange, and Beaumont Newhall. Jeffers exerted a strong influence on Baer’s thinking and artistic sensitivities.
In 1966 the American Institute of Architects gave Baer their Architectural Photography Award.
The success of ‘'Here Today'’ led to other assignments culminating in Baer's selection as the only photographer for the 1978 book ‘'Painted Ladies'’, a collection of color photographs of the more stately San Francisco Victorian houses, which was Baer's first major color photography project.
In 1965 the Baers built a new second home and studio, designed by Bay Area Modernist architect William Wurster, south of Carmel near the Big Sur coast. Located on the cliffs above Garrapata Beach, between the Big Sur Coast Highway and the ocean, it presented dramatic shore and ocean views -- the Baers had a good collective eye for location, Wurster designed the two-story house with its river-stone facade, creating an organic building blending with the Garrapata rocks and cliffs, sometimes referred to as 'The Stone House.' It commanded a striking view of Garrapata Beach and Soberanes Point with the long stretch of beach in between. Frances never felt comfortable in Garrapata, feeling it cold, damp, and isolated and continued to live in Berkeley while Morley used the Garrapata residence as his combination home and studio. The remote coastal location brought Baer into intimate contact with the primal natural elements of wind, water, light, and rocks at the cliffs and beach.
With Garrapata as his base, Baer photographed throughout the West but most notably in Central California. He exhibited his landscape portfolios of classical black-and-white photographs, wrote or contributed to several books of photography, and became an instructor in photography workshops. In the early 1970s, Baer joined Adams and other prominent central California fine art photographers to found the Friends of Photography in Carmel, which organized yearly photographic student workshops at Carmel’s Sunset Center and at the Julia Morgan-designed Asilomar Conference Grounds. Those workshops inspired development of what became known as the West Coast style of landscape photography through the last decades of the 20th Century. He published two photography collections in 1973, 'Andalucia' and 'Garrapata Rock,'
Along with his increasing success as a fine art landscape photographer, Baer continued with assignments as a commercial architectural photographer, primarily throughout the Monterey Peninsula. Among his many architect clients in this period were: Burde & Shaw, Hugh Comstock, Gordon Drake, and Tom Elston. He was the photographer for the brochure of the exhibition, ‘'California Design 1910'’ in late 1974 at the Pasadena Conference Center; one of his landscape photographs graces the cover.
In 1972, after the couple became temporarily estranged, the Baers sold the Greenwood Common house. Frances remained as an art teacher in the Bay Area. In 1979 they sold the Garrapata house, and Morley briefly moved to a smaller home in Carmel. In 1980, Baer was awarded the Rome Prize in Design and a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, where he mainly photographed the fountains of Rome. Baer had an exhibition, aptly titled “The Fountains of Rome”, in May 1981 at the Bonnafont Gallery in San Francisco. He returned to his Carmel home/studio after the year in Rome, and reunited with Frances. The couple then bought a house/studio on Carmel Valley Road in 1985, where they lived until their respective deaths.
From the beginning of their relationship, both as husband and wife and as business partners, Morley and Frances Baer worked as a team. Their separate but personal photographic visions and techniques centered around careful composition of the subject matter, complete familiarity with their equipment and materials, and dedication to the art and profession of photography. Both believed that only the view camera – Morley with an 8x10, Frances with a 5x7 - allowed them to express their feelings about a photographic subject. Although devoted partners, the Baers were intense mutual competitors and had an arrangement for ‘artistic rights’ to a potential photograph discovered while driving the countryside — it belonged to the person on whose side of the car the subject lay.
Baer's overall approach to making a photograph was centered on uniting technical capabilities of his camera and lens with emotional feelings at the moment of making the photograph. He always would apply his 'strongest seeing,' to borrow a phrase from Edward Weston, to bring out what he saw as the dominant element in a scene. His photographs were always finely set up, some would say “tightly”. Although he eschewed use of the term ‘composition’, he applied an admonition from Weston that “composition is just the strongest way of seeing”. Indeed, along with that uncompromising admonishment, Morley held to an amplifying Weston dictum that "Photography as a creative expression … must be seeing plus.".
Morley Baer's philosophy of art photography, and indeed of life itself, is exemplified in the work of several of his photographic assistants. Among them, linked below, are Marco Zecchin, Patrick Jablonski, Frank Long, and the late Erik Lauritzen. Lauritzen's own work is archived at UC Santa Cruz.
Motivated by a strong sense of simplicity in equipment and technique learned from Edward Weston, and reinforced by his readings of Robinson Jeffers' sparse poetry for which he had sincere admiration, Baer reduced his photographic equipment to a compact minimum. With time and experience, he acquired the equipment and techniques that completely suited his photographic style. Once he had settled on a particular technique he rarely changed it. Baer used the same Ansco 8x10S view camera on an apparently flimsy but really very sturdy wood tripod for virtually all his serious photography. After fifty years of usage the Ansco had become almost an extension of his mind and eye; he could adjust its settings by feel alone while under his darkcloth and concentrating on his subject in the ground glass viewer. Baer designed a special metal carrying case, with a sturdy leather-strap handle, constructed for him by a Monterey metal worker. He replaced it only once during his career. The case held his camera, several lenses, film holders and other paraphernalia he needed in the field. With his camera on one shoulder, and the carrying case in the opposite hand, he was perfectly laterally balanced as he strode towards the subject of his photographic interest.
Precise in his lens selection and use, Baer used a wide range of lens focal lengths from a 120 mm wide angle to a 19” (480 mm), what he called his ‘long lens’. As his favorite lens he claimed that “It sees how I see the material.” Having a lens for almost every occasion was important since Baer did mostly contact prints of his 8x10 negatives where, besides being esthetically displeasing to him, cropping was not an option. Although owning a Navy surplus Saltzman 8x10 enlarger, he rarely used it since contact prints were his preferred medium of expression – it’s now a prized possession of one of his last assistants. He standardized his procedures to the extent possible, based on thorough testing for film exposure and development characteristics, changing them only when necessary.
In developing his 8x10 negatives, he did so by inspection during the development process. While the development was well underway, Baer briefly checked his highlight densities with a dim green safelight and continued development until he obtained his desired densities. He developed early Isopan and later Super XX Black & White film in his variation of ABC Pyro. For some color work, Baer used Ektachrome film developed in a commercial developer but exposed at values he worked out in extensive testing. Although reluctant to use filters, Baer did so when necessary to make his photograph most effectively express the subject—as he described in technical entries in his several books. He seldom changed from his favorite print developer Amidol modifying it as necessary as printing papers evolved.
With his varied Navy photography experience, his many years of study, and intimate knowledge of his equipment, materials and darkroom techniques, Baer was well-qualified to take on any photographic assignment that came along. That confidence also allowed him to concentrate on the photographic task at hand, “… to interpret and thus to fully realize the potential for maximum expression… “ in his photographs. In evaluating a potential photographic subject, Baer thought both in esthetic and organizational terms but also in the technical challenges he would face in actually making the photograph. His assistant once watched Baer as he stared at a subject tree muttering, 'I am looking at the Pyro in the tree trunks [for the negative] and the Amidol [for the print] in the leaves'. He already was thinking of the technical problems he would have to solve in exposing the negative to get the tones he wanted in the final print.
Morley Baer died in 1995, in Monterey, California. His photographic archive was divided between personal work and architectural work. Film negatives that Baer felt represented his most significant work were given to the Special Collections of the University of California, Santa Cruz . His architectural archive was given to the Architecture School at Stanford University.