Visit nearly any restaurant or hotel in the Mystic area, says Nicholas Bell, Senior Vice President for Curatorial Affairs at Mystic Seaport, and you’re likely to see a Rosenfeld photograph hanging on the wall.
The classic sailing scene, the racing yacht, sunlight gleaming off of seaspray, are all what Bell considers “touchstone photographs” of the Rosenfeld collection and what the public has come to expect.
So when Bell, who started in his position at the Seaport in April 2016, was looking at possibilities for the exhibition calendar, he very quickly decided on a Rosenfeld theme. But it was not because of the maritime motif.
Quite the opposite.
It was the stereotype-defying city architecture and the photos of girls and women in various early- to mid-20th century roles, unearthed from the Seaport’s catalogue of nearly a million Rosenfeld photos, that captured Bell’s attention and that he thought visitors would find intriguing.
The exhibition, “On Land and On Sea: A Century of Women in the Rosenfeld Collection,” is based on a book by the same name and opened March 4. It features more than 60 images of girls and women in a variety of settings: from staged commercial photos showing women training to be telephone operators to candids of girls learning to sail.
While familiarizing himself with books the Seaport has published, Bell said he had been captivated by this one, which was written by Margaret Andersen Rosenfeld, the Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Sociology at the University of Delaware. She is also married to Stanley Rosenfeld’s son, Richard.
Margaret Rosenfeld had combed through hundreds of thousands of photos in the Seaport collection to compile the book, which is divided into seven thematic chapters; the exhibit will be arranged similarly. In the introduction, Margaret Rosenfeld deems the book “a chronicle of the social history of women’s lives in the 20th century.”
“So in this one act of a sociologist and family member digging into all of the unseen photographs in the collection,” Bell said, “we have been offered an opportunity to sort of see behind the scenes and to really get a sense of how much more complex the Rosenfelds’ experience of American life was over the course of the 20th century, through what they saw and what they chose to photograph.”
So we see the nurses and caregivers, the marches, women building and fixing boats, and yes — women sailing.
“And what it reminds us is that the history of our past is always more nuanced than we often give it credit for,” Bell said.
Margaret Rosenfeld held a book signing in conjunction with the exhibit opening, and will return to speak during the summer.
Margaret Rosenfeld’s area of expertise is women’s studies and racial inequality, and she says the sociologist in her has long studied groups, like women, whose life experiences have been underrepresented.
Though she is quick to point out that she is not a historian, “Documenting and explaining women’s lives has really been the hallmark of my career,” Margaret Rosenfeld said. “This was sort of a natural fit. And when Stanley was still alive, I said, ‘Let’s do this book together; you can talk about the images and I can bring the sociological perspective to bear.’ ”
Margaret Rosenfeld didn’t wind up starting the book until after Stanley’s death. She traveled to Mystic for three or four days at a time, sitting in front of what looked like an old microfilm machine to scan through thousands of images contained on laser disks.
She calculated that she could scroll through 100 images per minute. Most of the images were of sailing yachts, so if she came across what appeared to be a person, she’d stop; if the person was a woman, Rosenfeld would push a button and get a small photographic print “on crummy paper.”
She took those long rolls of photographic paper home and pinned them up, then would keep looking at them.
“One would call out to me, and I’d put a red check on it,” she said. And thus the process unfolded.
Rosenfeld then came up with the concept of the seven thematic chapters. Earlier in their careers, the family — Morris and his sons, David, Stanley and William — had shot a lot of commercial images to earn a living. There are women learning to be telephone operators, women as care workers, and models on boats.
Margaret Rosenfeld realized that the photos, while stylistically beautiful, were limited by the subject matter the Rosenfelds were hired to shoot and, later, by the elite and middle-class circles they naturally found themselves in as they photographed yachting.
“I knew at the time there was no way I would be able to write the complete history of women,” Margaret Rosenfeld said.
For someone accustomed to academic writings and college textbooks dense with details and facts, the process was an adjustment.
“I had to let myself move into a different creative zone,” Rosenfeld said, “which was quite wonderful.”
The photos, some of which are close to 100 years old, not only offer a timelessness, but a timeliness as well.
There are immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, women in the workplace, and suffragists on the march. The photo of the suffragists, Misses Gage and Milholland, is dated 1916 and is of a women’s march for voting rights. It will be displayed as a 10-foot mural at the exhibition.
Bell didn’t know, of course, how the presidential election would turn out when he conceived the idea for the exhibit. And as he sat in his office thumbing through the book on a Monday morning in late January, just two days after the women’s march in Washington, DC, he nodded when asked about the juxtaposition of current events and the exhibition’s subject matter.
“I wish it was open already,” he said with a wry smile.
The exhibition runs through September and plays into the museum’s larger plan to have a more “robust” exhibition schedule, Bell said, particularly with the new Thompson building.
“This is just one small step in our goal to be an all-season venue and to offer more inside exhibitions so people can come and have a reason to be here in February and March,” Bell said.
Mystic Seaport is located at 75 Greenmanville Ave., Mystic. Visit mysticseaport.org or call 860-572-0711 for more information.