CAPTIVATED by CAMERAS
Collector Lives On In Collection,
Remains Of ‘Thousands’ Of Items
Paulette Cotter pauses among hundreds of cameras in her Town of Milford home, part of her late husband’s collection. She estimates Alan, who collected and traded toys, cavern memorabilia and other antiques, bought and sold “thousands” of cameras over 45 years. Above is a stereopticon slide of the young couple.
By JIM KEVLIN
Alan Cotter sought out the collector – all these years later, wife Paulette remembers him only as “Kent” – and bought a miniature camera. For the next two years, “we collected a camera a day,” she said.When the newlyweds arrived in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1968 – he had enrolled in the Brooks Institute of Photography – there, in a window of a Main Street bank, was a “huge display” of multiple antique cameras.
When he graduated from Brooks in 1969, “it was ridiculous, economy-wise. Grads were pumping gas; he didn’t want to do that,” said the wife.
Thus began a life of buying and selling cameras, Daguerreotype images, Stereopticon slides – you name it – even “magic lanterns,” like the Zoetrope, a pre-film animation device that provided exotic scenes and sights the general public wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
Based in Santa Barbara until 1984, when the couple moved to Morris, Alan would travel to collectors’ conferences on the East Coast, picking up choice examples en route and back.
During the 1970s, the couple produced three national camera-collector directories that sold for $8 apiece. “There were no computers, it was all by hand on a typewriter,” said Paulette, who was a teacher by day and typist by night.
She also produced “Reflecting On Photography, 1839-1902, The Cotter Collection,” with a Daguerreotype of Alan on the cover. The photographer died young, having inhaled too many mercury fumes, the same thing that killed Louis Daguerre, the French inventor of the process, Paulette said.
Over a lifetime, the Cotters – Alan passed away in 2015 – bought and sold “thousands” of cameras and related items, said the wife.
When Wayne Wright, retired NYSHA library director, was putting together “Oneonta Photographers, 1850-1930” last summer for the Greater Oneonta Historical Society, he learned of Paulette’s collection.
On stopping by, “I was amazed,” he said.
He ended up borrowing a rare two-lens Stereopticon camera, the type used by Oneonta photographer William Meremess in the 1870s, to round out the exhibit. (Wright is installing three panels in the City Hall lobby this week.)
The Cotters both grew up on Long Island, 25 miles from each other – he in Babylon, she in Merrick. But they met at a Baptist summer camp in Freehold when she was 14, he was 12. “We used to play ping-pong together,” she said.
After high school, she headed off to Wheaton College in Illinois. Two years later, who showed up but Alan. The two sang in the college choir together, but “he didn’t recognize me. We all hung around together after choir to eat together and play ping-pong,” she remembered. “It wasn’t until November that I dawned on him who I was.”
When she graduated two years ahead of him, they married. After another year at Wheaton, they headed out to Brooks, and the collecting began. For two years in the late 1970s, Alan also curated the college’s photography museum.
“He was interested, he got me interested,” said Paulette. “He was the collector, but he always ran it past me. It was something we did together.”
In the 1980s, with their two sons growing – Brady Cotter, now OHS track coach and Earth Science teacher, and Ben Cotter, the Southside chiropractor – the couple moved back east so the boys would know their grandparents and extended family. They bought a house, sight unseen, in Morris.
There, they opened an antique store, but it was a block off the main road. So in the 1990s, they bought an old Federal-style farmhouse right on Route 28 at Milford Center, renovated it and built a shop out front, increasing usable space from 2,200 to 3,700 square feet.
Today, photo equipment dominates, but not exclusively, as Alan would swap cameras for other intriguing objects, including a stuffed lion from a Boston museum and a stuffed alligator prone atop a cabinet.
He also dabbled in perhaps 20 other types of collectibles, from board games, to toys, to souvenir plates of tourist-destination caverns like Howe’s in Schoharie County.
But cameras do abound, and much of the variety, Paulette attests, were developed for private detectives – and even spies. One camera was designed to attach to the photographer’s chest, with the lens fitting through a button hole, and activated by a switch in the photographer’s pants pocket.
Another camera looks like a tool box, with the lens camouflaged on its front face. “They were designed to look like other things,” Paulette said. Another hand-sized camera bears Russian markings; KGB
Other cameras are on pivots, allowing a panoramic shot of, for instance, high school classes. Sometimes you see the class wag twice – he ducked behind his classmates and appears on the right and left of the lineup.
Another pivot allows a 360-degree image.
And there are related items, such as a photographer’s brocade couch, where all sides fold down to allow variety in poses.
For his 30 years in Otsego County, Alan was also choir director at Oneonta’s Main Street Baptist Church. The son of a pastor, “he loved the Lord,” he wife explained.
Diagnosed with cancer in 2011 and given nine months to live, he battled the disease with homeopathic methods, surviving until March 29, 2015. Still, he certainly lives on amid his collection.
“He never found an end to collecting,” said Paulette, “because he always found something new – something he had never seen before.”