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Remembering Aaron Rose Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

12 March 2021

The fine art photographer Aaron Rose, who worked in self-imposed obscurity for much of his life, died on Feb. 7 at his SoHo home at the age of 84.

He was born as Aaron Rosenweig on March 33, 1936 but his father William never acknowledged him and his mother Rose was institutionalized at his birth.

He was raised in foster homes where he met a photographer "who gave me something to do." The job was to be an assistant to the photographer as they visited the homes of new mothers to take portraits of them with their babies.

Rose was intrigued by the photographic process. "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 to see how beautiful the people looked," he said.

After graduating from the High School of Performing Arts in 1955, he went into commercial photography, adopting the name Rose.

The light, chemistry and beauty of photography that was realized in the secret world of the darkroom became the focus of his life.

In his twenties, he spent three summers shooting people on the beach at Coney Island between noon and six on the weekends, mostly. He used a Leica with both a wide angle and a moderate telephoto lens, loaded with early color negative film. He didn't want to disturb people, so he developed an approach that guaranteed they never knew their photo had been taken.

'I didn't want to get my gratification from the outside world.'

That involved shooting at shutter speeds of 1/1000 second and keeping his distance, rehearsing how he would pass by them. But it also involved tweaking the soup.

"I had a pretty good sense of photographic chemistry so I was able to use the Type C process that Kodak had invented, but I took it a little farther so I could increase the speeds, equivalent to a high-speed film," he said in an interview with Jeanette D. Moses that includes many of the images from his show In a World of Their Own: Coney Island Photographs 1961-1963. He pushed the film from ISO 160 to over 1000. "That enabled me to close down on my lens, get the maximum depth of field and it gave me a very gritty look, which I liked," he said.

Those images didn't see the light of day until Rose was in his seventies.

He had collected antique hand tools that he sold to the Eli Lilly Company for a small fortune that he used to buy an old factory with classic cast-iron architecture in 1969. The owner was anxious to unload the property when SoHo was in decay and not the fashionable address it has become.

Rose's plan for the four-story building was to rent out the first floor as retail space so he could do his photography without the burden of selling it.

He explained his motivation, "I didn't want to get my gratification from the outside world. I needed the gratification from myself. What I can do. How it makes me feel. I'd rather follow that than spend the rest of my life pleasing the world out there."

He built his own camera and concocted his own developers, aging his papers to get beyond the usual warm and cool white balance into pink, orange, blue and gold. “I think of myself as partly an alchemist,” he said.

As he approached his sixties, he began to think about showing his images. Not to sell them but to have them be seen.

So in 1995 he exhibited nature photographs at the John Froats Gallery in the Hudson River village of Cold Spring, N.Y. And in 1997, he was persuaded to exhibit at the Whitney Bienniel in New York.

In 2001, he published a book of his photography. Aaron Rose Photographs collects four decades of his work in 144 pages.

It was not until 2014 that he exhibited his Coney Island prints, which he was worried about and wanted to protect. He put 70 of them in the hands of Susan Henshaw Jones, the was director of the Museum of the City of New York. "I trusted that she would know what to do with this work and she did," he said.

She did. She showed them to the world.

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