Ralph Middleton Munroe was born to Thomas and Ellen Middleton Monroe in New York City on April 3, 1851. Raised on Staten Island and while spending summers in Concord, Massachusetts with his grandfather, lead pencil manufacturing pioneer William Munroe, he was introduced to several of his family's literary friends, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. As a boy, he developed a lifelong love of nature and the environment, which would later inspire and influence his photography. After attending New Jersey's Eagleswood Military Academy, Mr. Munroe studied drafting and design at New York's Columbia University. A fascination with boating led him to sail to Key West, and while sailing over Biscayne Bay, he became enamored with the breathtaking seascapes, friendly residents, and tropical climate.
After returning to New York, he met and married Eva Hewitt, with whom he had a daughter. When his wife contracted tuberculosis, the family moved to southern Florida in hopes that the warmer temperatures would hasten her recovery. Sadly, both Mr. Munroe's wife and sister succumbed to tuberculosis, and shortly after his return to New York to visit family, his baby daughter also died. Returning to the warmth and tranquility of Florida, Mr. Munroe and his brother-in-law Mott Hewitt assisted in the construction of the Bay View Villa (later renamed the Peacock Inn), a Coconut Grove hotel along the majestic shores of Biscayne Bay. An interest in amateur photography turned into a vocation of sorts as several of his images of local people and places were published in a number of regional books, journals, and newspapers. His photographs in Willoughby's Across the Everglades offer the first eyewitness account of pioneer life in late nineteenth-century Miami. Mr. Munroe's camera of choice was Blair Camera Company's large wooden bellows camera, with a reversible back that enabled him to capture both horizontal and vertical images. Mr. Munroe took both standard shutter photographs with a lens cap and tripod and 'instantaneous' views of moving objects with a portable handheld camera. He preferred developing his own prints using a transportable darkroom, which included a red glass lantern safelight, carefully bottled and boxed chemicals, several cartons of paper mounted with cardboard. An enlarger was, of course, unnecessary due to the camera's fully equipped 8 x 10” plates.
Mr. Munroe became a popular winter fixture in Coconut Grove, purchasing 40 acres of bayside property, and building a timber boathouse that was transformed into a single-story bungalow dubbed 'The Barnacle.' Being voted 'Commodore' of the newly formed Biscayne Bay Yacht Club in 1887 earned the entrepreneur a nickname that lasted for the rest of his life. He married Jessie Wirth in 1895, with whom he had daughter Patty and son Wirth. Mr. Munroe, the first credited photographer of southern Florida prior to its industrial transformation, also presided over the development of Coconut Grove, constructing schools, churches, a post office, and a complex sewage system. His first collection of photographs were published in his 1930 volume, The Commodore's Story: The Early Days on Biscayne Bay.
Eighty-two-year-old Ralph Munroe died on August 20, 1933, and was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, located near his family's summer home in Concord, Massachusetts. Ralph M. Munroe's extensive photographic collection - comprised of both prints and negatives – resides in the Historical Museum of Southern Florida's Research Center, and The Barnacle remains as another tangible legacy of the photographer who shared the natural wonders of this unique region with rest of the world.
1994 Dreamers, Schemers and Scalawags by Stuart B. McIver (Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, Inc.), pp. 112-113.
2017 Everglades Biographies: Ralph Middleton Munroe (URL: http://everglades.fiu.edu/reclaim/bios/munroe.htm).
2004 The Forgotten Frontier: Florida through the Lens of Ralph Middleton Munroe by Arva Moore Parks (Miami, FL: Centennial Press), pp. 4, 13, 15, 17, 52.
2017 A Guide to the Ralph M. Munroe Photographs (URL: http://www.historical-museum.org/collect/findingaids/1977-146.html).
1998 Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia by Winston James (London: Verso), p. 54.
2015 Visual Art and the Urban Evolution of the New South by Deborah C. Pollack (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press), p. ixv.
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