In the early 1960s a young man was stalking people on the beach at Coney Island — not with ill intent, but with a camera. He took countless pictures, the subjects unaware that they were being photographed.
“I liked the big, fat men,” the photographer, Aaron Rose, told Popular Photography many years later. “When they laid down, their bellies stuck out and bulged out. I just find it very comical, very cartoonish.”
But the big-bellied men, and all the others whose images he captured, need not have worried about being exposed in galleries or some museum show, at least not for more than a half-century. Rose was an innovative and prolific photographer, making tens of thousands of one-of-a-kind images over the course of his career. But for most of that time he showed his work to no more than a small circle of acquaintances.
Only in 1997, when he was persuaded to have some of his photographs included in the Whitney Biennial in New York, did the broader world begin to appreciate his extraordinary body of work. Even after that, though, he did not exhibit often. The surreptitious Coney Island work did not see the light of day until 2014, when the Museum of the City of New York exhibited 70 of the pictures in a show called “In a World of Their Own: Coney Island Photographs 1961-1963.”
Rose was that rarest of artists: one who does not chase after gallery shows or sales to deep-pocketed collectors. In a 1997 interview with The New York Times in advance of his Whitney Biennial debut, he explained that his low profile had been by choice.
“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,” he said. “I wanted only to do my work, for myself, without any commercial influences.”
That work consisted not only of taking photographs — of the demolition of the old Penn Station in Manhattan, of rooftop scenes in New York, of seashells, of underbrush — but also of printing his own images, using aged paper and chemicals that he mixed himself. Often the pictures were shot with cameras and lenses that he had made.
Rose had his own darkroom processes that enabled him to imbue black-and-white images with hues of pink and blue, orange and gold.
VR Sunil Gohil