Today fellow Woody Boater and reporter Cobourg Kid is taking us to the Mystic Seaport in Connecticut’s “Ocean Corner” – part of the Mystic Country region, which is located about an hour south of Hartford, CT. Our journey to the Mystic Seaport is to learn about the most prolific family of marine photographers in the country at one time – simply known as The Rosenfeld Family, and their magnificent collection of historical photographs which now lives at Mystic Seaport. – Texx
An Eye for Wood and Waves –
The Improbable Tale of Mystic’s Rosenfeld Collection
Story by Cobourg Kid
If you leaf through any magazine you are bound to notice a large number of photos branded with a photographers credit; and for most of us that information is simply extraneous, in other words we seldom, if ever, think to lift the curtain and discover something about the life and work of the artist who shot that picture and with the explosion of images on the web (most unattributed) this trend has done nothing but intensify.
I too am guilty of this. For years I would thumb through old Yachting and MotorBoating magazines, observe the name M Rosenfeld emblazoned alongside many of the photos and think no more of it. That is until the day I finally put two and two together and realized that the Rosenfeld photos I had been enjoying were unusually compelling and even occasionally wondrous. Expertly dodged and burned (a laborious and artful procedure in pre-Photoshop days) those black and whites began to talk to me, silently telling me a story without text.
From the resolute gaze of raceboat pilots, to foreboding sky’s, full of billowing clouds, and back down to the blue-black waves pitching bows, angry wakes and the ever present spray of water, those prints not only delivered action, they also expressed the story of captains and their craft, either in contest with the elements or one-another as they transited the misty race courses of the now forgotten past.
And so it was about a year ago while doing some research that I inadvertently discovered the Rosenfeld Collection, an archive created by Mystic Seaport that holds an absolutely astounding number of photos and documents, almost a million in all, that forcefully capture, in pungent shades of black, white and gray, the evolution of sail and power boats between 1881 and 1982.
This improbable 100 year legacy of imagery was assembled by the New York based photography firm of Morris Rosenfeld and Sons. Its progenitor, Morris Rosenfeld (known as Rosey to his boating pals) was the son of Austro-Hungarian immigrants who had dreamt their son would become a physician. But Rosey had other things in mind. Captivated by the art of photography he left school in 1898 at age tender age of 13 to apprentice with various photographers. Pursuing a dream he eventually enrolled in courses at New York’s Cooper Union School and ultimately persuaded Edwin Levick, the leading yacht photographer of the day, to take him under his wing.
Finally in 1908 with ten years of solid technical skills, a fully developed sense of art and composition and some savings under his belt, Rosy decided to point-up, pulled his sheet-in and sailed off in his own direction, opening a studio in the at 116 Nassau Street, in Manhattan; a business that soon became known as M. Rosenfeld and Sons Photographers.
Now back in the early part of the last century, nautical photography was not a high paying proposition, but Rosey was adaptable, he branched out and took on industrial and advertising photographic assignments to pay the bills while cultivating his passion, (the imagery of watercraft) in his spare time. Ultimately Rosey’s eye for detail and composition along with hard work and perfectionist traits brought him success, allowing him more time for nautical photography. As the business grew so do Rosenfeld’s staff and eventually all three of his sons (David, Stanley and William) eventually joined their father, helping the company grow into the premier nautical photography firm in North America.
At the onset of the roaring twenties, images captured by Rosenfeld and Sons had become pervasive and boat owners and builders now considered it an honor, rather than an inconvenience, to be photographed by the firm. Those pictures (often shot from the company’s chase boats (FOTO I, II, III and IV), were eagerly sought by both nautical and mainstream publications. In fact If you have ever flipped through old Yachting , MotorBoating or even Life Magazines, you will, without doubt, have seen the Rosenfelds’ work. In addition, Rosey managed to parlay his talent into a surprising number of photography contracts with small firms and large multinational corporations such as OMC and GULF Oil Company.
The firm had thrived for most of its 70 year run, but Rosy’s death in 1968 and the departure of his son William to another profession around that same period left Stanley Rosenfeld alone at the helm. Given advancing age and the recent death of his spouse, Stanley (an accomplished photographer in his own right) made the very difficult decision to close the business. Three years later the Rosenfeld cameras, studio equipment and its vast photographic collection was sold to Mystic Seaport which had assured its permanent preservation.
In retrospect it’s truly amazing how many varied events the Rosenfelds covered, from the Americas Cup to the Gold Cup to the National Outboard Championships – they were there. The back story was that Rosey prohibited his sons from publishing anything under their own name, always insisting that the mark “M Rosenfeld” be applied to all of the firm’s photos . Which according to David Rosenfeld, led to some confusion, he recalled that “People used to comment, “He sure does get around.” And I said, “Very easy when you have three sons getting around for you.”
In later years William Rosenfeld was asked to comment on what it was like to work for his dad, he recounted that “Morris ‘Rosey’ Rosenfeld could at once be a martinet, tyrant to the family and at the same time be very generous and giving. He gave no quarter in his demands for excellence in our photography; nor did he accept any less for himself.”
Now, in the hands of the Mystic Sea Port Museum, the Rosenfeld Collection has been safely tucked-in to a custom designed climate-controlled vault that forms only a part of busy Collections Research Center. Cataloging and preservation efforts are ongoing and to date approximately ninety-seven thousand images have been logged by curatorial staff and volunteers. Of those, sixty-seven thousand photos are currently available in video disc format for research and publication purposes.
Reproductions of the iconic Rosenfeld images as well as various books illustrating the firm’s work are available to the public, for both personal and commercial uses, of course all revenue generated from the sales are used to fund the museum’s programs, including the ongoing cataloging and preservation of the Rosenfeld Collection. For more information on the Rosenfeld Collection you can contact the Mystic Seaport – The Museum of America and the Sea.
The museum has expertly crafted a very short, but exceedingly comprehensive, seven minute video that captures the essence of the Rosenfelds life and their work; which you can view below.
Morris Rosenfelds’ Movable Studio
FOTO III at Cutts and Case Shipyard – Oxford, MD
To this day, we still know the whereabouts of many of the (now classic) boats the Rosenfeld family photographed throughout their remarkable career. Many of those boats were photographed from their series of chase boats known as FOTO I, II, III and IV. So you have to ask, where are those legendary Rosenfeld chase boats today?
Cobourg Kid was able to track down one of them – FOTO III – at Cutts and Case Shipyard in Oxford, MD. On short notice, Mike Moore (Manager Cutts and Case Shipyard) was kind enough to send us a few photos of FOTO III which they restored a few years ago, as she now resides in their showroom. The boat is apparently hard to photograph inside the building due to the narrow corridor it’s positioned in, but it’s still great to see her.
Built in 1929 by City Island, New York’s Kanno Boat Works, the 33′ FOTO III was designed by Frederick Lord. The vessel is the third of four chase boats named FOTO by the Rosenfeld family. And, as you can imagine, she has led quite a life over the last 85 years.
The story of how FOTO III ended up at the Cutts and Case Shipyard is detailed on its website. To summarize; – Ed Cutts Senior (who sadly passed away two years ago) often traveled north to Long Island Sound on personal and business cruises, and in the 1960’s occasionally saw the Rosenfeld’s chase boat at work. A procedure that usually found Morris Rosenfeld’s son Stanley glued to the helm, while Morris (replete with camera) hollered directions and simultaneously slid around FOTO’s cuddy and cabin roofs trying to get the angles on passing subjects.
Mr. Cutts ultimately got to know Stanley Rosenfeld and indicated he was interested in buying the boat, but for some reason Stanley ultimately sold it to a friend who lived in Georgia in 1977. The friend was not gentle with her and did little maintenance, let alone restoration, and in the early 1980’s left her to rot in a Georgia backwater.
By chance, Cutts began looking for her again at around that same time and soon rescued her, and took her back to his Boatworks in Oxford, Md. FOTO III was subsequently restored as a project to keep staff occupied when there was downtime in the shop (which meant it was a long process). FOTO III ultimately emerged looking like new and probably stronger too.
FOTO III has been a fixture of the Cutts and Case showroom for many years, but with Ed’s passing there has been some consideration about finding a new home for her. I suggested to Mike that given her history, she was of Smithsonian importance and Mike agreed, but he feels that Mystic Seaport probably would be the proper place for her.
Thanks CK – Another great and informative story today. The description of Morris Rosenfeld hollering directions while trying to capture the best photos of passing boats made me chuckle – as we can relate to that – right Matt?