Bennington College opened only a year before Carolyn Crossett Rowland arrived in 1933 as part of the school’s second graduating class.
A competitive sailor who had spent her teenage summers placing high in races off Cape Cod, she set about creating a legacy as a photographer and philanthropist that spanned decades and reached from Bennington’s rural niche in Vermont to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
She set up the college’s first darkroom, and her photos are displayed at her alma mater and as part of the collection at the MFA, where she was an overseer. Mrs. Rowland also studied with two early giants of photography, taking an early workshop offered by Ansel Adams and meeting with Alfred Stieglitz, who critiqued her work.
“It’s amazing to think we knew somebody who knew Stieglitz,” said Anne Havinga, the Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh senior curator of photographs at the MFA. Although Mrs. Rowland’s philanthropy and passions included music and libraries, photography “was her passion, her identity; it was always her primary interest.”
Mrs. Rowland, who also formerly served as a trustee of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the University of Massachusetts, died of cardiac arrest May 15 in her Boston home. She was 96.
“We like to think of her as embodying the spirit of Bennington,” said Liz Coleman, president of Bennington College.
Mrs. Rowland had an “integrity combined with a piercing wit and an elegance of style that we just don’t match any more,” Coleman said. “In some ways, she was very conservative, for example in her politics, but at the same time she was radical in her appreciation of new ideas.’’
Some of Mrs. Rowland’s own work is reminiscent of the Walker Evans photos in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” Other photos she shot show the influence of Adams, who became her friend in the years after she went to California as one of his early workshop students.
Mrs. Rowland donated some of Adams’s work to the MFA’s Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, and she financially supported acquisitions in photography and other realms.
“She was an admirable and forceful character and had a very good influence on the department,” said Clifford Ackley, the Ruth and Carol J. Shapiro curator of prints and drawings at the MFA, “and she was regarded with great affection by everyone in the department who had anything to do with photography.”
The youngest of three daughters, Carolyn Clark Crossett was born in Davenport, Iowa, and grew up in the Chicago area.
The financial interests of her father, Edward Crossett, were mainly in lumber.
He taught her how to shoot photographs and develop her work in a darkroom at the family’s summer home in Osterville.
“They had a little studio down here at the Cape,” said her stepson, George R. Rowland Jr. of Wellesley and Osterville. “They did their own photography, the printing and everything to do with it.”
Mrs. Rowland’s father also taught her to race sailboats at the Wianno Yacht Club in Osterville.
She was known as Crossie at Bennington College, from which she graduated in 1937.
Mrs. Rowland later became a life trustee at Bennington, where she studied photography.
Examples from Mrs. Rowland’s photo montage work can be found at www.flickr.com.
After Bennington, Mrs. Rowland served as an officer in the Massachusetts Women’s Defense Corps during World War II, acquiring an unusual talent along the way.
“She was a superb driver, and she taught people how to drive at night without lights during the blackout,” said the Rev. Eleanor Panasevich of Cambridge, a longtime friend.
Carolyn Crossett married George R. Rowland on Oct. 27 1946, a date she had engraved on a gold watch she gave him as a wedding present. They knew each other from social circles in Osterville.
The Rowlands divided their time between Boston and Osterville in all seasons. He died in 1997.
At the newly-constructed library in Osterville, a fireside reading room is named in honor of Mrs. Rowland, who was a trustee and had been scheduled to speak at the new building’s dedication next week.
In addition to her stepson, Mrs. Rowland leaves two step-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. June 26 in Trinity Church in Boston.
Mrs. Rowland “was just incredibly engaged in life,” Panasevich said.
“The day before she died, she took a trip down to the Cape,” Panasevich added.
“It was like her way of saying goodbye. I think she knew her days were numbered, but she made one more trip to see that library, and it was largely thanks to her that it came into being.”
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