World-renowned photographer Morris Rosenfeld (1885-1968) won his first photography contest at age 13 with an image of a three-masted ship. Using the prize money, he purchased his own camera and promptly quit school. More than a century later, his stunning images that have so eloquently captured the evolution of yachting remain unsurpassed.
With his sons David (1907-1994), Stanley (1913-2002) and William (1921-2006), Morris chronicled 100 years of shipping, power boating, racing and boatbuilding, as well advancements in photography and marine technology. With more than one million images, the Rosenfeld Collection represents the largest anthology of nautical photographs worldwide, and it resides at Mystic Seaport, The Museum of America and the Sea, in Mystic, Connecticut.
Growing up in Manhattan, Morris combed the docks and shipyards photographing watercraft. As a teenager, he freelanced for magazines and newspapers, and apprenticed with yacht photographer Edwin Levick. In 1910, at 25 years old, he opened his own studio.
Morris worked for advertising, architectural and industrial clients including telephone and engine companies. The images he produced that are also part of the collection trace the birth of communications in this country, and how boats, sails and engines have progressed.
By the late 1920s, Morris, affectionately called “Rosy,” started concentrating more on photographing boats and races. His chase boat Foto (Foto II and Foto III would follow) enabled him to keep pace with larger vessels. Creating striking images on board a moving boat was no easy feat, especially with a heavy, large-format camera and film stock that had limited exposures. Yet Rosy became known for his dynamic portraits of yachts and yachtsmen, especially those associated with the America’s Cup races and trials, like Harold S. Vanderbilt, who won three times aboard the 140-foot J-boats Enterprise, Rainbow and Ranger. Other notables include media mogul Ted Turner, who successfully defended the cup aboard the 12-meter Courageous; and Dennis Conner, who participated in nine races and has the distinction of being the first American skipper to lose the cup in 132 years, and the first to win it back. While photographing these races, Rosy was also recording the cultural changes to the sport, as well as innovations in technology and design.
Each of Rosy’s sons entered into the business but found their father difficult to work with. David, who was a master in the darkroom, joined Rosy on projects for the US Navy. He left in the 1930s to teach photography. William worked in the field and in the darkroom, and drove the chase boat. Eventually, he took a teaching position at the Westlawn School of Yacht Design.
Stanley’s forte was action shots. With the advent of the lightweight, 35mm camera and faster film stock, he could capture motion quickly and easily. He retired in 1992, when he grew disillusioned with the advertising that now covered the cup boats, making them unattractive to photograph. In an obituary written by Barbara Lloyd and published in the New York Times, Stanley said, “It hurts me to look at them. I understand the boats cost a great deal of money and the teams are very serious. But you shouldn’t do that to a yacht.”
In 1984, Mystic Seaport purchased the collection from Stanley for $1 million. It included 250,000 color transparencies, 300,000 film negatives, 40,000 glass plates and thousands of printed photographs in 548 cardboard boxes. It was a fitting home, since Mystic Seaport’s mission has always been to preserve America’s maritime past. As an active living history museum, it has 19 acres of exhibits with an authentic coastal village, ships for boarding — including the 1841 whale ship the Charles W. Morgan — and an array of hands-on demonstrations and programs.
The Rosenfeld Collection is housed in Mystic Seaport’s state-of-the-art Collections Research Center. Since it is a working collection, the utmost care is taken when handling the negatives for exhibitions, archiving, cataloging and printmaking.
The Rosenfelds were masters at fine-art printing and had an uncanny sense of how to create powerful images from the initial capture through to the final print. Often, they would dodge or burn certain areas of the print to make it appear as if it was shot in moonlight instead of daylight for mood enhancement. Sometimes, they would crop the images to generate more tension. “The Rosenfeld’s printed for drama. They added clouds that weren’t there,” said Mary Anne Stets, curator of photography and director of intellectual property at Mystic Seaport. “This was way before Photoshop. We don’t always known which cloud negative was used for what photo, but a couple of been identified.”
Last year, Mystic Seaport partnered with The New York Times in selling fine-art decorative prints from the collection available in silver, platinum or pigment. To preserve the negatives, they now make a high-resolution scan from the original and do all the dodging and burning within the digital file. The file is then outputted using film recorders and made into a 4” x 5” negative for everyday use.
As a non-profit organization, Mystic Seaport relies on sales from licensing the images for use in calendars, posters, note cards, books, films, television programs and documentaries. As part of its ongoing commitment to share this collection with the world, it publishes books under its own name and distributes them here and abroad. “Our book On Land and On Sea: A Century of Women in the Rosenfeld Collection gets other parts of the collection out there. It’s a diverse collection that compliments many areas of yachting,” said Stets. Additionally, it creates exhibits from the collection like the Art of the Boat, which was first shown at Mystic Seaport and later in Philadelphia at the Independence Seaport Museum. America’s Cup Legends debuted at Rockefeller Center in 2006.
“Working with the Rosenfeld Collection has enhanced my appreciation that photographs can evoke a sense of being one with nature as only a vessel plowing through the sea can,” said Stets. “The quality and sensitivity of the images cannot be matched. From the grandeur of Morris’s J-boats resembling graceful dinosaurs, to Stanley’s more intimate America’s Cup deck scenes full of body language, they are all provocative.”
To purchase fine-art prints, books, products, or to license images or research the collection, visit www.rosenfeldcollection.com. Find out more about Mystic Seaport, The Museum of America and the Sea, at www.mysticseaport.org.
Caryn B. Davis is a writer and photographer from Chester, Connecticut. Her images and articles have appeared in over 60 publications. She is an avid boater and world traveler. www.cbdphotography.com.