An Eye For Wood and Waves – The Improbable Tale Of Mystic’s Rosenfeld Collection
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.
To see the full story of FOTO III including some great photos of her, you can visit the Cutts and Case Shipyard website by Clicking Here.
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?
The Rosenfeld collection is indeed a great one…I recall when I was on the ACBS Board we had a quarterly meeting at Mystic shortly after the collection was placed there. We marveled at the photos. I was Editing The Brass Bell at the time and asked for a photo to run with a story I planned to promote the coolection…They told me I could have a photo if I paid for it. I tried to explain, if more people knew of the collection, they could sell more pictures…But they didn’t buy that reasoning…So I ask, how could Woody Boater afford to buy all the pictures used to run with this great story.
They sent a few of Troys models to entertain them.
Fantastic. Thankyou CK.
It is amazing what a true artist can due with film, paper, and light.
Pretty amazing when you consider the logistics of travel at the turn of the last century, the technologies of the day and what must have ben required to take those shots, produce the images and maintain a viable business. A great example of passion for one’s work.
I wish I knew the Museum was right beside New London, CT when I was there in November… I could have promised an ART Gallery tour!
Thanks again CK. A part of maritime and classic watercraft history that I am so glad you made the effort to share with us.
Great story, that header photo just grabs your attention
Well, Wilson that explains why my Credit card was rejected at Starbucks this morning. Cobourg Kids these days! Ugh..
Great story. Wonderful video. Back in the eighties I bought a book on classic wooden boats and as a bonus received a print of the Miss America V and VII included in this story. It still captures my imagination every time I look at it.
Thank you CK. The beauty of b&w photography is sadly now forgotten. What happens in the darkroom is both magical, dependant on a great eye and technical skill.
Mystic is the best place for FOTOIII. She needs to be with the photo archives. At the SI, she would be in storage 97% of the time.
Love the picture of the “fartin” Martin!
Those classic old photographs were crafted by persistent, passionate people who did not care how difficult it was to get the shot right. They just did it. Average people’s photos were really terrible at that time because of lack of skill and poor equipment.
Modern technology has made average photography MUCH easier, but the photographers getting the really amazing shots still go to great lengths to get them.
Remember, nothing worth doing is ever convenient – kinda like woody boating.
Morris Rosenfeld was by far the greatest maritime photographer of his time. I have certainly spent my fair share with Mystic adding to my collection. When I started visiting the Chris-Craft archives in Newport News, going through all of the C-C photos, occasionally you will see a perfect, crystal clear photo… every time it was a Rosenfeld. You could spot them a mile away.
I am certainly not a photographer and can only imagine the challenges presented with cameras in the 1920s and 1930s. Even with todays equipment you would be hard pressed to get the quality Rosenfeld did back then. His work is one of the greatest gifts to our hobby.
Stunning photography. A large format film camera certainly beats an iPhone. Thanks for sharing.
Oh yeah, ya can’t get the vibrations of an engine captured on one of those big boxes..now that’s art! Kinda.. in an iphone way.. OK OK, AND It can fit in my pocket! Call for pizza and beer! And find girly pics on the net! Can that large format camera do that? Maybe I am not helping myself here.. I am leaving now..
Lake Hopatcong and the Rosenfeld family have a shared history. The lake was a center of boat racing beginning in the early 1900’s. The races were covered by the Rudder, Motor Boat and Motor Boating. Morris Rosenfeld was there covering the races. The fact that Morris was there brought great excitement to the lake community, as reported in the local press. The Peter Pan VII pictured above had it’s roots in Lake Hopatcong. The first Peter Pan was owned By James Simpson in 1908. He won every race and cup that year in his Reliance Boat Co boat. He built a new Peter Pan each year and continued to win. In 1911 Mr. Rosenfeld took notice and photographed PP IV. The Rosenfeld family was at the lake as late as 1941. The Rosenfeld’s also took the only known photo of ” Miss Hopatcong” a 33′ Baby Gar. ( one of three on the lake at the same time! ) This boat raced on the lake as well as the northeast. The Rosenfeld photo was taken in Boston at a race. There may be other Lake Hopatcong photos in the collection at Mystic that are yet to be cataloged. The Mystic Museum is a wonderful place to visit!
The Mystic Seaport Museum and the Wooden Boat Show they sponsor every year is still a bucket list item for me. It’s good to know that they have taken in this amazing Rosenfeld Collection. Thanks CK & WB for this excellent report and for making us aware of it’s existence there; a reason to move it up a notch or two on that long bucket list.
While managing the Chris-Craft Antique Boat Club from the early 80’s until 2005 or so produced nearly a hundred issues on The Brass Bell. Recently he gifted Mystic Seaport Museum a nearly complete collection of these, plus some from years prior to his tenure with the Club. The museum has also been on the Club’s mailing list for receiving more recent issues of the quarterly publication. The museum reports that they will soon be made accessable for researchers in their Library.
Perhaps pale in comparison to the extensive and historical Rosenfeld Collection of Photography, but worth honorable mention.
Oh, forgive me! I intended to include that it was Wilson Wright who managed the Club and gifted the Museum with the collection of The Brass Bell quarterly publication. Sorry Wilson!
Nice come-back WB!
Thanks CK and WB for researching and publishing this.
A pic of Kim’s Rosenfeld china.
One of my favorite pieces of Lake Hopatcong memorabilia is this Rosenfeld shot taken in front of my house with the River Styx bridge in the background. Its an original B&W.
…and the back. Start of Unlimited Runabouts-Lake Hopatcong
Very Cool John!
Matt: No wonder your credit card was rejected…I just went back to that Summer 1990 Brass Bell article we ran on the Mystic Seaport Museum and see what was said about the availability of Rosenfeld photos. ” Depending on use, prices range from $175.00 for an 8 x 10 black and white to $350 for a 16 x 20 ciba chrome” …That was 1990 prices…With inflation, no telling what they are 24 years later, I didn’t count all the photos here but it looks like there was good reason your credit card was maxed out.
Al: Thanks for the plug…I was happy to gather those old issues for them…even if they wouldn’t give me a photo to publicize their museum.
Kim: Love the china…When are we going to be invited for dinner ?
CK, that is totally amazing. And the shots you provided are just beautiful. Made me long to see more of them. Thanks so much for reporting on this.
Thanks Alex. I can take credit for the words but the Photos are (needless to say) all Rosenfeld.. Morris was an absolute genius when it came to putting light and shadow together…he also worked like a fiend, demanded perfection and was hard on his sons but he could be equally kind and generous …Above all I get the sense that it was passion for his work that drove him, which is something that we all should strive for.
Hopefully this article will reignite new interest in this complex and important American artist and give him and his family the recognition that they truly deserve.. Perhaps PBS could get the ball rolling with an episode of American experience featuring the Rosenfeld’s ?
And let’s not forget the greatest marine photographer of our time Texx!
Thanks John – Back at Cha! (same day, same minute during the 2013 St. Johns River Cruise)
Oops – Forgot this was a vintage story today…
Hmmm, just thinking if Morris had got his hands on that shot he might have thrown in some brooding clouds , misty sky’s and some dark, shadows suggesting a tropical downpour in the offing….O’boy this is what happens when you study a subject too long and don’t get any sleep.
CK – The idea of PBS doing a Ken Burns-ish style film about the Life & Times of the Rosenfeld Family is great.
An intrepid Brass Bell photographer seeking that “perfect shot.”
Geez, not only high quality photos, but high quality comments! Am I on the right web-site? That Tempo VI lives in Issaquah close to Seattle. When Joe Fraunheim was done with the restoration, he splashed it in Lake Sammamish, asking a bunch of us to act as safety boats/course markers. After giving Madame Marie a ride, he came around and stopped at each of our boats, and gave us all a turn at the wheel while he was the throttle man. I have never been so scared and exhilarated in my whole life driving that beast!
The foto of the shapely model running the 20hp Martin 200 outboard certainly caught my eye — and then some! It made me think of the 4×5 Kodachrome negatives that I came across on a closet shelf in my parents’ bedroom — I think in 1951-52.
Dad was advertising manager for Martin Outboard Motors from start to finish, working closely with an ad agency in Minneapolis. Thus, he often was present during photo shoots. The Kodachromes were evidence of this. As I thumbed through them, I was suddenly brought up short by the image of a handsome male model in swim trunks at the controls of a Martin 200. Also in the photo was a pretty swimsuit-clad female model sitting forward atop the bow’s enclosed deck. The girl’s hands appeared to be clawing at the bow deck’s surface. Her mouth, I also noted, was wide open and her expression was one of utter distraught. As I looked closer, I saw that the upper half of her two-piece swimsuit had slid down, and her exposed breasts — one angled upward and the other downward — were dancing a jig. Or so it seemed to my adolescent eyes.
It took a couple days to get my nerve up before I confronted my dad, who grinned mischievously. In essence, here’s what he had to say…
The shoot was on a long dock at nearby Lake Altoona (Wis), at the very end of which dock was a wooden lifeguard tower purposely installed there for the photographer’s use. The plan called for the boat to make a number of passes very close to the end of the dock — action shots. With each pass, the power was increased. What nobody seemed to notice was that the wind was picking up, and the lake’s surface was getting rather choppy.
I don’t have to tell you the consequences — you’ve already soaked that part up. What I need to add is that at the very moment when the mammaries became unhitched due to the bouncing bow, the boat happened to be passing by the dock. Dad shouted out ‘KEEP GOING!” The boat made another circle at full speed and came roaring by, the photographer
shooting one last shot with his Speed Graphic.
I can only imagine that the model was in tears, though that liklihood was never mentioned by my father. The lady’s feeble grasp of the gunnel’s edges was just enough to keep her from bouncing out of the boat — but not enough time between bounces to let go and reposition the upper half of her swim suit. It was either-or.
But wait — there’s more!
The photographer was none other than Mr. Joe Rosenthal, of Iwo Jima fame. Rosenthal at the time worked for a newspaper, and also free-lanced on the side. Dad said afterwards that Joe made the remark that his life was now complete. When dad responded with a “how’s that?” Rosenthal said. “I’ve photographed Old Glory being raised, and now I’ve photographed a bra being lowered. You can’t beat that.”
Thanks for the great comment!
Great website and story content!
Could I get a copy of the picture of J.P. Bickell above or if you have any other pictures. Mr. Bickell was a famous relative of mine and I am currently doing some research on his life and interests.
Most Sincerely, Graham