The Photography of Stanley Rosenthall
“Photography to me is like a kid playing in a sandbox…”
~ Stanley Rosenthall
It was obvious that Stan Rosenthal was still a kid from the moment I met him over 20 years ago. I didn’t know him as a photographer then, but his playful spirit and wordplay were irresistible. A bit of a curmudgeon at the best of times, he endeared me with his no-nonsense approach to life, which he always managed to infuse with droll humour.
Stan sought me ought to assist him with a web project at his home. Walking down into his basement studio for the first time, I was confronted with walls full of mounted black and white photos, images of New York City, Europe, industry, steel workers, and a multitude of cars. When it came time to settle on payment for my services I walked out with 15 darkrooms prints. I only asked for one.
Raised by his older brother in Montreal, Stan learned photography using an Argoflex E. A Jimmy Olsen-type photojournalist then, he shot hundreds of images for the West Hill High School yearbooks between 1944 and 1948. Not content to shoot pictures of football games and cheerleaders, he began to focus his camera more broadly during this time. Images of neighbourhood fires and a serious accident, complete with a blanket-covered body beside the wreckage, begin to show up in his negatives. Stan was hooked.
After labouring in the family furniture business for a few years he wound up in NYC in 1957 as a darkroom assistant at the United Nations. This led to a stint in the darkroom at Life Magazine, where he once felt Alfred Eisenstadt’s wrath for printing the wrong negative of President Kennedy and his family at church (“they all looked the same!”). It was a frustrating encounter that led to him stepping out on his own as a freelance editorial photographer in early 1960.
As a freelance photographer his work varied extensively. Photographs of musicians from the burgeoning Soho folk scene at the Bitter End Café, images of Steve Allen in a New York studio doing voice over work, pictures of a gang of workmen hoisting steel, with one steelworker straight from central casting who could pass for the Marlboro Man, begin to populate Stan’s portfolio.
A chance assignment shooting a prize fight led to a European tour. He sold the image rights to an Italian magazine for airfare and hotel stays. The trip yielded photos that subtly capture the cultural tropes of the places he visited. For the first time, Stan used his camera to seek out and attempt to interpret places and situations that lay beyond his own experience. His angles changed. His compositions changed. Stan incorporated his new perspective in his practice upon his return to New York City.
By 1964 he was using Hasselblads for his medium format work alongside a new Nikon F, a gift from a thankful (and possibly light fingered) Air Force pilot whose wife Stan had photographed. The 35mm format allowed him to shoot what he was passionate about; cars. On his wall in his studio hung a large collage of press passes to every imaginable venue and signature race. He became a fixture on pit row, photographing auto racing legends in their prime. He was featured in all the racing magazines of the day. December 1965 was a turning point for Stan, as Car and Driver Magazine ran a feature about his work around the track AND he was also on the inside cover of Modern Photography magazine as the face of the Minolta SR7 (a curious ad as he once confided that he never owned a Minolta).
Rosenthall’s commercial practice took off. He continued to shoot sporting events, but his editorial and corporate work was in high demand. Stan shot hundreds of ads for car companies, specifically for the small imports that began to infiltrate the US market in the 1960s. Datsun, Citroen, and Triumph ads (among others) appeared in countless magazines. He shot an extensive (and highly misogynist) campaign for Valium, which marketed the drug to those afflicted with ‘women’s issues’. His photography began appearing in travel magazines, financial magazines, and medical magazines; he had become a very successful photographer in the centre of the advertising world.
Around 1970 he moved to Toronto and established a new studio, becoming a specialist in industrial photography. Varied industries such as oil, steel, automotive, and fashion requested his talents for literally hundreds of articles, advertisements, and corporate reports. One day he would be leaning out of a helicopter photographing airplanes, another hundreds of meters underground shooting the latest innovations in the mining industry.
All of Stan’s work takes the same direct approach to his subjects as he did to life. The image is the thing. The action, typically front and centre, with little to distract from its impact. This does not suggest that his photographs lacked storytelling capacity, rather, the subject IS the story.
Although not versed in the artistic world of photography’s elites at the time, his work subconsciously showed the influences that he gleaned from the advertising world he inhabited. His early portraits drew heavily from Avedon, his fashion work from the new mod stylings of Bailey, Donovan, and Duffy in Britain. The photographer with the greatest influence on his editorial work was Henri Cartier-Bresson. Stan shot several powerful images on his European trip that could have been pulled straight from the archives at Magnum.
He viewed his work in photography as a passion, but not as art. Stan had won numerous awards over the years but was surprised when his work started to gain artistic credibility and he was asked to share his photos and thoughts about them starting around 2011. After joining foto:RE as a founding member that year, he could be seen at events across the region, full of lively anecdotes and becoming an inspiration to a new generation of photographers.
When he passed in 2016 at 82 he left a collection of roughly 50,000 black and white negatives and colour slides. The images presented just scratch the surface of his work and mark the beginnings of an attempt to catalogue and honor the man and his artistry.
~ This article was previously published in foto:RE|VIEW, written by Mark Walton
Stanley Rosenthall was a Canadian born photographer whose career flourished in New York City in the 1960’s. Starting out as a darkroom assistant at the United Nations and Life Magazine, Stan went on to become a successful freelance photographer for numerous companies and publications. For more information about his work, you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org
~ Posted by Mark Walton