“All around me I saw people who became cynical and bitter when they didn’t get the recognition they thought they deserved, and I wanted to be free of that, I wanted only to do my work, for myself, without any commercial influences.” -Aaron Rose
Very few photographers get to live the dream that Aaron Rose talked about and in fact achieved. Far more famous photographers, Ansel Adams for one, have done commercial work to fund their artistic passions.
Aaron Rosenweig was an orphan who grew up in foster homes because his father refused to claim him and his mother, Rose, was institutionalized when he was born. Aaron changed is last name to Rose to honor his mother.
At one of his many foster homes, he met a photographer who gave him work as his assistant holding lights and reflectors.
Rose told Bloomberg in a 2014 interview that being an assistant gave him something to do. “But more than that, when we got back and I saw the pictures being made in the darkroom, all the people he was shooting always came out so beautiful. It fascinated me.”
After graduating from the High School of Performing Arts, he did commercial photography but really shot for his own enjoyment.
Collecting antique tools was a side hustle for Aaron Rose. Over the years he had gathered a fairly large collection from his travels into the American countryside and into Europe to obtain rarer hard-to-find items.
They became the foundation he used to build his income as a small-time landlord in SoHo. Rose sold his collection of antique tools to the Eli Lilly Company for a quarter of a million dollars and used $156,000 of it to buy a multistory building.
Refuge in SoHo
He moved into the building in 1969, renting the street level as retail space and the upper floors. For years the retail tenant was the Holly Solomon Gallery. Today, the space houses Smith & Hawken.
”I only knew that I had found a huge place with beautiful light, and it was cheap enough to let me do what I cared about, “Rose recalls the time saying, “The neighborhood had only a few artists back then. I had a printing plant on the floor below me and a factory above me, and every morning the machines would start to go, and I never needed an alarm clock.”
The income from his tenants, freed Rose from having to pursue commercial photographic work. It allowed him to explore photography and avoid having to sell his work at galleries or, for that matter, to show it which happened rarely.
Rose would be considered today as a control freak. He wanted to control the way his photographs are made to the point of mixing his own chemicals for the darkroom. He printed his photographs in a darkroom he built which some regarded as an alchemist’s laboratory. He shunned premade developers from suppliers like Kodak, Edwal, Ilford and others. He mixed his own formulas and regularly made only one print of each photographic negative.
Paul Goldberger writing for The New York Times in March of 1997 quoted Rose, ”The process is quite phenomenal if you just allow it to go, I get excited by the way the light strikes the silver or the gold. I think of myself as partly an alchemist.”
Aaron Rose dedicated himself to the creation of a body of work that is similar in scope and size to the most prominent of photographers today. The difference is that he has done it quietly, without publicity and with scant gallery showings. He has sold a few photographs to collectors and friends and has regretted it each time. Since he prints each photograph only once, selling a print was letting go of part of his creativity.
Rarely seen photos
Rose photographed rooftop views of New York and underbrush (opening photo, top row, first & second images,) the destruction by the march of progress of Manhattan’s original Penn Station from 1964-65 (opening photo, top row, group of five images,) and Coney Island (opening photo, bottom row.)
He was persuaded to show some photographs in the Whitney Biennial in 1997. The world got a glimpse of the one-of-a-kind images he created. His Coney Island work wasn’t shown until 2014. The City Museum of New York held a 70 photograph exhibition, “In A World of Their Own: Coney Island Photographs 1961-1963.”
Rose made these images with a Leica 35mm camera using early color print film. He said “In order for me to get the pictures that I wanted, I needed to catch people totally spontaneous, without any kind of idea that a picture was even taken. So I ended up, looking, spotting things, rehearsing how I was going to walk past that, and made my transitions very fast, very smooth. In order to do that, you need very high-speed color film.”
Pushing the film
Rose solved his need to shoot at 1/1000 of a second to get look he wanted by increasing the ISO of the film as far as it could be pushed in processing. The result he achieved were images that had a grainy texture and muted colors. The prints look almost like pointillism.
The first image in the exhibition was of a crowded beach scene that was blown up to cover an entire wall in the museum. A longer look reveals that everyone is looking at a young man in full drag including rouge on his prominent cheekbones and his upswept hair (opening photo, bottom row, first image.)
Sean Corcoran, City Museum of New York’s curator of photographs and prints said of Rose, “He was trying to get to the core of who people were on the beach.”