In Aaron Rose's pictures of Coney Island, you can see everything. Flesh, yes; that’s what he went looking for, and he got it, in all its imperfect glory. The photographer went to Coney Island seeking the drama of the human figure, unveiled. This, at a time in history when men wore hats and suits and women wore white gloves and modest dresses. "Bodies, anatomy," says Rose. "To be exposed, to have it all around you, to see the true source of light, which is the sun, which is constantly changing. Where else would I find bodies so abundantly?"
But there’s much more than bodies in these photographs, on view now at the Museum of the City of New York in a show called “In a World of Their Own: Coney Island Photographs by Aaron Rose.” On the beach, Rose also captured emotion, intimacy, and the defiant freedom that urban people feel when they are released from their workaday routine to the water and the sun.
This show, of photographs taken on summer weekends between 1961 and 1963, is a rare chance to see the work of a man who has spent his life both immersed in the life of his city and also at a curious remove. Rose is an orphan, born on an undetermined date in the early 1940s. He grew up in foster homes. And he has spent a lifetime practicing the art of photography, almost never looking to sell his pictures and only rarely exhibiting them.
In 1997, a few of his pictures were exhibited in that year’s Whitney Biennial. The Museum of the City of New York has also shown some of his photographs documenting the demolition of Penn Station. But for the most part, he has kept his work to himself, refusing to sell prints and making a living in other ways because he doesn’t want to be influenced by what the market wants to see. "At an early age," he says, "I decided I didn't trust other people as much as I had to learn to trust myself."
Not that he wants his pictures to remain hidden. "I'm getting to the point where you think, this ain't going to last forever," he says, laughing. "I don't want the work to be lost in its meaning." A show at an institution like the MCNY makes sense to him. "My work has to go back to the public," he says. "It can't have any money attached to it. I come from the public. That's where I come from. That's my parents."
Rose may have a reputation of reclusiveness, but in person, he is warm and open and completely unpretentious, with a deep New York accent and a throaty voice. I met with him on the fourth floor of the building in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood where he has lived and worked since 1969.
He bought the former factory, a classic example of the neighborhood’s renowned cast-iron architecture, from a guy who was anxious to unload it at a time when Soho’s future was still uncertain. Only a few years earlier, Robert Moses had been hoping to push an expressway through what was then a grubby part of town. No one could have imagined that it would become some of the most valuable real estate in the world, where long-legged, model-perfect young women stalk past boutiques selling just a few carefully curated garments at prices that could easily feed a family of four for a month.
When he bought, Rose wasn’t thinking about big profits. He simply wanted to set up a situation where he could do his work without worrying about pleasing other people. He had spent the previous few years collecting antique tools, a detour away from photography that took him out into the American countryside and ultimately to Europe in search of ever-rarer specimens. Eventually, he sold the impressive collection he had amassed to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company. That move fetched him enough money that he could buy security in the form of real estate—the very thing that New Yorkers, artists, and especially New York artists find hardest to secure. Now he rents out much of the prime space in the building, including a swank ground-level retail storefront.
The resulting income has bought him freedom to pursue the art form he has loved since childhood. He has boxes of thousands of prints shot over the last 60 years, all neatly catalogued. He still shoots all the time. Right now, a lot of his work focuses on nature.
Way back in his foster home days, a commercial portrait photographer he met in one of those homes gave him his first job, assisting on photo shoots, holding lights and reflectors. The two traveled from house to house, shooting pictures of mothers and their babies.
"He was somebody who gave me something to do," says Rose, who was immediately captivated 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."
The rootless boy had found the future he knew he would have to make for himself. "I was a street kid," says Rose. "You wanted something, you had to figure out how to get it. I was looking for what I was going to do." Photography grabbed him. "It was light, it was chemistry, and it was beauty," he says. "A wonderful combination to begin with. And then it had its secret world, which was the darkroom, how to interpret what you saw."
Ever since, the processing and printing of film has been as important as the shooting for Rose. He shot the Coney Island series with a Leica camera on early color print film, and the whole time, he was exploring the limits of what was possible with the new technology. "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." That meant shooting at 1/1,000th of a second, with film that was calibrated for much slower shutter speeds. Rose pushed the film to its capacity in the processing.
The result can be seen in the grainy, almost pointillistic quality of the photographs, and in their muted colors. "He wanted his own color, his own way of presenting the world," says Sean Corcoran, the museum's curator of prints and photographs. The fast-moving technique allowed Rose to enter into the bubbles of intimacy that couples created around themselves as they passionately kissed on the sand, or into the private abandon of men and women as they surrendered, eyes closed, to the sun. "He was trying to get to the core of who people were on the beach," says Corcoran.
The opening image of the exhibit, blown up to cover an entire wall in the museum, is one of its most striking. At first glance, you see a typical summertime throng of beachgoers crowding the frame. Look a little longer, and you see that they are all directing their attention inward to a single bold figure: a young man in full drag, his high cheekbones rouged, his hair upswept (see above).
"Brazen. He's brazen," says Rose, gazing at a print of the shot in his studio. "And the crowd is keeping their distance around him. I love the scene, and I love the underlying tension. [I was] hoping that nobody would interrupt this very valiant gay person who was walking through the crowds in spite of knowing that he could get hurt. And nobody bothered him. They were amused, if anything. That, to me, was a beautiful moment. It was a beautiful thing about where New York was at that point."
The image captures one of the central paradoxes of life in New York: the way that the city's crowds of disparate people create a climate that is both lonely and communal, both private and exhibitionistic.
It is a paradox that Aaron Rose himself embodies. "I know I'm in a great city," he says, smiling. "But I know I'm a hermit at the same time. And yet I love every part of it. That was a choice that I had to make a long time ago, because 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."
All images by Aaron Rose, courtesy The Museum of the City of New York.