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Classic Coffee-Table Gems

In the gift-giving season our thoughts naturally turn to beautiful pictures of the sea and ships. Over the past year we’ve had three new, superbly illustrated books celebrating one aspect or another of seafaring in magnificent black and white photographs arranged in a format as large as that of an excellent world atlas. Any one of these books will make a coffee table (or any table, for that matter) very proud. Yachting’s Golden Age lovingly captures the first great era of large yachts under sail. The Last of the Wind Ships gathers the best work of one of the 20th century’s finest seafaring photographer-writers. And Sails & Sailing surveys the achievement of America’s first family of yachting photographers.

Generous sailplans, graceful lines, and plentiful crew characterized the awe-inspiring vessels from sailing's golden era.
Yachting’s Golden Age
contains more than 100 superbly reproduced, large photos of the pleasure boating world of 1880-1905—a time that author Ed Holm calls the era of "Grand Yachting." Great fortunes were accumulated and spent without regard either to the income tax, which did not yet exist, or to Puritanical modesty, which was beaten down by a great wave of conspicuous consumption. While there were a few examples of conspicuous bad taste, the age did foster some eye-catching creations of the human hand in architecture and yacht building. Shown here in splendid reproductions are some of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring yachts ever built, including J. Pierpont Morgan’s Corsairs, Reliance, and the other immense America’s Cup sloops of the time, as well as some of the first big one-design classes.

This is hardly the first well-illustrated book on yachting history. Having read most of them (and having written five myself, including one titled The Golden Pastime), I opened Yachting’s Golden Age with the hope, but not the expectation, of finding something new. But I’m pleased to report that here there are many unfamiliar pictures as whole themes that have rarely been brought together so well. To cite one example of Holm’s innovations, take his locations. Most books like this aren’t interested in anybody or anything from west of the Hudson River.  While Newport is featured, as is Marblehead, so too is San Francisco in magnificent photos of pleasure sailors decades before the Golden Gate Bridge filled photographers’ viewfinders. Another unusual feature here is the attention paid to the everyday sailors on these yachts—the professional skippers and deckhands who are too often shoved to the side to make room for the wealthy owners. Here, often they take center stage.

Holm’s text and long captions nicely set the scenes for these images. He has done his research in the library as well as in photograph collections, and Yachting’s Golden Age is a good, non-technical history of big-yacht design in that period. Yet its best value lies in Holm’s ability to project the era’s mood. For instance, he quotes yacht designer L. Francis Herreshoff on the "characteristic and delightful odor" of the great yachts: "If you passed under the stern or to leeward of one of them you smelled the combined odors of new varnish, linseed oil, brass polish, Havana cigars, and champagne." Now that’s Grand Yachting!

In this compliation of his best works, Villers documents the glories of square-riggers and occasional agonies of their crews.
The author-photographer of The Last of the Wind Ships, should be better known than he is. It is likely that God and history delayed bringing an end to commercial sail until Alan Villiers came along to properly record the glory of square-riggers and the occasional agonies of their crews. An Australian born just after the turn of the last century, he spent much of his life sailing in, writing about, and taking photographs of the last of the great sailing ships. Some people may have heard of Villiers in the context of his training ship Joseph Conrad, now at Mystic Seaport Museum, or the replica of the Mayflower that he sailed to Massachusetts. He also wrote fine books, including By Way of Cape Horn, Grain Race, and The Set of the Sails.

Nowhere are Villiers’ marvelous, sympathetic photographs of sailors, ships, and the sea reproduced as spectacularly as they are in The Last of the Wind Ships, a compilation of some of his best work. Maritime historian Basil Greenhill, in his introduction, describes how Villiers at the age of 15 "committed himself to a life at sea and not merely to being at sea, but to mastering the sailing culture, although that culture was dying in front of his eyes." Almost every niche of that seagoing culture is exposed here, from the risky life aloft to finances to shipboard pets and even stowaways. Yet what is best illustrated in these pages is the absolutely demanding nature of the ship herself. One photo shows two apprentice seamen, not much more than boys, balancing on a bowsprit that is much bigger around than they are tall, near a forestay that is not much narrower than their arms. Accompanying each photograph is a long section of Villiers’ writing, which has none of the phony heartiness that’s too often ascribed to seamen’s prose. This man could write. He tells us that working aloft usually is not a worry, "But if you have seen someone get killed up on those yards it is different. You do get nerves, after that." This book will tell you why.

The masterful photographic technique that the family is known for invests this book with, compelling images of the classics.

Sails & Sailing, the third of these new attractive coffee-table nautical books, is a collection of superb photographs from the Rosenfeld Collection at Mystic Seaport Museum. Among the best of all yachting photographers, and surely the most artistic in their use of black and white film, Morris Rosenfeld and his sons not only photographed every America’s Cup match from 1920 through 1987, but also went aboard fishing schooners and other commercial vessels, spending days afloat looking for "the perfect shot" of thousands of boats, great and small. The Rosenfeld Collection includes many images from an earlier time by other photographers, some of them represented here.
Black and white film, in the right hands, can be more sensitive to boats and their environment than color film. Perhaps this is because it leaves something to the imagination, or because it introduces subtle shading and textures that thrust the boat off the page and, so to speak, into the reader’s eye. This is a function both of the original negative and of clever developing. The Rosenfelds were masters of the darkroom, and Stanley Rosenfeld (who is still active) has described to me how on weekends they went out to photograph boats, and on weekdays they went out again to photograph clouds and shadows. The right cloud would be inserted into a print using a technique called "dodging" to produce a particular effect—the good cheer of a puff of white cumulus, say, or the fatefulness of a black thunderhead. This is why some Rosenfeld prints (like the famous evocative image of Vanitie sailing into either moonlight or sunlight) can look a little different one from another, but certainly neither better nor worse.

The 79 photos here include some of the best of the Rosenfeld Collection, among them Vanitie, Gretel’s wild surf in the 1962 America’s Cup, a Hinckley Pilot leaping out of a rough sea as though chased by a sea monster, and the sloop Valkyrie warily beating into one of those black squalls that the Rosenfelds cultivated. Some photographs are in gatefolds that spread across 27 inches. The text and captions by the editor, Franco Giorgetti, have been translated from the Italian and are a little awkward in places. That certainly cannot be said of the illustrations.

(Reproductions of images from the Rosenfeld Collection may be ordered from the collection through its website:

John Rousmaniere is offline  

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