Margaret Andersen Rosenfeld got to the point where staring at the screen began to make her feel nauseated.
She’s the daughter-in-law of Stanley Rosenfeld, who was the son of Morris Rosenfeld, making Andersen a member of one of yachting’s most prolific photographer families of the 1900s. Andersen is also a scholar of women’s studies, so from time to time, when the team at Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut, found a couple of interesting historical photographs of women among the million or so images that Morris and Stanley had taken, they’d send Andersen the proofs.
There were enough of those photographs—usually ones that magazines of the day had left on the cutting-room floor—that Andersen got curious about how many photos of women were actually in the Rosenfeld collection. Using the family’s access privileges at the museum, she started searching through three laser discs that her father-in-law created before he died. Each disc is the size of an old 33 1/3 phonograph record, and each one holds thousands of images. To view them, Andersen would put the disc into a microfilm-type machine and scroll through the images one by one.
Thus, the sick stomach.
“I could look at a hundred images a minute, and most of them are boats without people in them,” she says. “If I did it for too long a stretch of time, I would get seasick from all the water going by. When I saw one with a person in it, I would stop.”
She ended up with dozens of rolls of images featuring women. Andersen printed them out and taped them up in her home office to consider them for a while. She’d put a checkmark next to ones that she found the most interesting, maybe because of their composition or historical context or general “X factor.” Some ended up with multiple checkmarks over time, helping her narrow the images down to the 150 that became part of her coffee-table book On Land and On Sea, which puts the photographs into historical perspective alongside text that she wrote about women of the era.
The book became the basis for an exhibit that has been shown at Mystic Seaport Museum, and that, from this May through March 2020, will be on display at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland.
“The Rosenfelds set out to capture the play of light on the water they saw in yachting, raising photography to art,” the Chesapeake museum’s chief curator, Pete Lesher, stated in a press release. “But their cameras captured more than they intended, incidentally documenting the changing roles of women in America. This exhibition explores new messages in the work of the most celebrated yachting photographers.”
Andersen’s husband, Richard Rosenfeld, had the idea to give each of the book’s seven chapters a title that was a double entendre for the yachting set. Those chapter titles carry through to the museum show, with collections of photographs categorized as “Learning the Ropes,” “At the Wheel” and “In the Yard.”
“There’s a history there that many people don’t know,” Andersen says, especially of women who sailed competitively in the early 20th century. “Most people do not know that there were two women who did race in the America’s Cup in 1937. One of them is Mrs. Phyllis Sopwith, who is on the cover of my book, and the other is Gertrude Vanderbilt. Now, they were very wealthy women who owned the boats they sailed aboard, but they were always present. They just often don’t get acknowledged.”
Also surprising to many lovers of the Rosenfelds’ yacht photography will be the quantity of photographs Morris and Stanley took not of boats, but instead of women for advertising and fashion promotions.
“There are funny ones of the women at a boat show, probably in the 1960s, and one of them has this miniskirt on and huge, high knee boots, clearly part of an advertising shot,” she says. “Of course, the Rosenfelds were also doing commercial photography, so some of them are staged. You can tell. This was their business; they had to make money.”
In many ways, Andersen says, showing this part of the Rosenfeld collection at this time—when things like the “me too” movement are becoming a force and more women than ever are winning elected office across the United States—is a way to show yet another dimension of American history. Women played a much larger role than most people understand in the creation of the Rosenfelds’ photographs, even if few people ever saw them behind the scenes.
“In the Rosenfeld family, it’s Richard’s father, grandfather and uncles who are very well known,” Andersen says, “but it’s the women in the family who took care of the records, drove the boats, took care of the kids on the boats.”
Add to that list “getting seasick” to show the world a new dimension of history from the beautiful angles that the Rosenfelds captured, of boats manned by women on the water.
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue.