“On Land and on Sea: A Century of Women” may seem an odd theme for a major photography exhibition at the regionally focused Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, especially considering that 71 of the 80 images—all black and white—were shot by Morris Rosenfeld and his son, Stanley, commercial photographers working mostly in and around New York City.
Only one of the Rosenfeld photos, for a 1951 advertisement hawking Cruisalong pleasure boats, was shot along the Chesapeake—at Solomon’s Island. But the museum’s chief curator, Pete Lesher, supplemented the exhibit with nine photos—three each by Maryland contemporaries of the Rosenfelds.
Included among the Aubrey Bodine prints by the late Baltimore Sun photographer is one of Eastern European immigrants working in an oyster-packing plant in 1957. Constance Stuart Larrabee, the only female photographer whose work hangs in the show, charms us with a candid 1951 portrait of Annie Daley, said to be the oldest woman on Tangier Island at the time. The island, just south of the imaginary line in the Chesapeake separating Maryland from Virginia, along with Smith Island just north of the line, were settled by European immigrants who first landed at Jamestown. Annie, in her traditional dress and bonnet, could pass for an early settler except that we suspect she did not live to 250 years of age.
The third Maryland photographer, Robert de Gast, captures shipwright June Wingo caulking the seams of a Maryland Dove reproduction in 1978. If you stroll across the museum campus from the Steamboat Building, where the photo show is mounted, to the shipyard overlooking the harbor, you’ll see a new reproduction of the Dove under construction. The original Dove, and Ark, its sister ship, brought the first European settlers to what became the British colony of Maryland in 1634 at what is now St. Mary’s City. “That photo was a no-brainer to select for this show,” says Lesher, who besides his full time job at the museum serves on Talbot County Council.
The other 71 photos, all by the Rosenfelds, are organized into seven chapters in the catalog by Margaret Andersen Rosenfeld, a University of Delaware anthropologist who married into the Rosenfeld family. “In the Yard” depicts women either observing boats passively on shore, as in the earliest photo from 1911, or working on them, hands on. “At the Wheel” finds women taking charge either rowing, steering or rigging the sails. Among the most dramatic is of Ruth Herring from 1933. She was the defending world record-holder among Class A Professional Hydroplaners. Her craft races along, all but airborne, with only the outboard propeller skimming the water’s surface. A series of wintry photos shows the grit of women boaters who competed in Frostbite Regattas at yacht clubs from Larchmont, N.Y., to Detroit. The races were conducted on waters that had not yet frozen over though air temperatures were far below 32 degrees. Though these are all stills, you can practically see competitors shivering.
America’s Cup races from the 1930s take over an entire wall in the second-story galleries of the exhibition. Phyllis Sopwith, wife of Sir Thomas Sopwith of Great Britain, is regally framed at the helm of their sailboat Endeavour, which challenged for the Cup—never lost by Americans until the 1980s—in 1934 and ’37. They were defeated by Gertrude Vanderbilt, also shown at the wheel of Ranger, and her husband Harold Vanderbilt, who designed the sailboat. It took a special ruling by the Cup committee for the women to be allowed onboard with their husbands for the races.
“Spirit, Sports & Spectators” ranges from an unidentified aviatress with her biplane in 1917 to three-time Ladies Tennis Champion of the U.S. Open, Mary Browne, in the same year. It’s hard to imagine her not tripping over her full-length tennis skirt—all white but still a stark contrast to women’s tennis wear at Wimbledon these days.
A century of women at the voting booth will be observed next year—the 19th Amendment granting women the vote was ratified Aug. 18, 1920—and is represented in this exhibition, drawn from one million images in the Mystic Seaport Museum’s Rosenfeld collection. In a 1912 photo, two women are attending a suffragette rally in New York, one standing and the other on horseback. They would not get to vote for another eight years.
Steve Parks is a retired journalist, arts writer and editor now living in Easton.
“On Land and On Sea: A Century of Women in the Rosenfeld Collection” Through April 5, 2020 at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, Steamboat Building
213 N. Talbot St., St. Michaels Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily through October, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. November through April