The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Sizzling
Aaron Rose
In a World of Their Own: Coney Island Photographs
Photo by Aaron Rose . Source: mcny.org
Aaron Rose, "Untitled, Coney Island, 1961-63"

Coney Island is one of the psychological capitals of the New York photo world. There are few New York photographers who do ‘street’ work who don’t have a good portfolio or two of Coney Island pictures. This is especially true for photographers who came of age during the 1950’s and 60’s. Coney Island had it all. The beach always attracts exhibitionists, and the photographers who are all too willing to oblige them. But there is (or was) a sheer ballsiness to the Coney Island New Yorker. They could wear that silly looking nose shield and expose more flesh to the sun than most people had over their entire body, and screw you — what are you lookin’ at? Skin––of course–– a constant stream of it, dark and light, male, female, old and young.

Add to that the freedom of the crowd. If you were living in tight quarters, with your little brother or mother constantly on your case, the anonymity of the beach crowd was a form of privacy, almost romantic — yes?

Some photographers embrace the crowd. Weegee, could attract hundreds simply by setting up a camera for the necessary Daily News ’Hottest Day of the Year’ picture. Others like Bruce Davidson and Diane Arbus would engage with individuals, pulling the emblematic (Davidson) or odd (Arbus) out of the crowd. Garry Winogrand, who treated photography as a hunt, stalked, stepped forward and shot his non-consenting models, capturing what was seen at the time as veracity and edginess.

And then there is Aaron Rose.

Photo by Aaron Rose . Source: mcny.org
Aaron Rose, "Untitled, Coney Island 1961-63"

Aaron Rose has been photographing in New York since the 1950’s (he was born in 1940) and has amassed tens of thousands of photographs, most of them printed just once, in his own darkroom, and then carefully stored away. Only a handful of prints over the years were given to friends and associates. Because of some good business fortune (he bought a loft building on West Broadway, before it became ‘SoHo’) he was able to devote most of his time and energy to his photography. He became deeply engaged in building his own cameras, and developing elaborate and unique darkroom techniques. The work itself became abstracted and concerned with light and photographic seeing, though it was seen by very few people, and Rose had no apparent desire to show or sell it. But, the people who did see it valued it, and these turned out to be good people to know. The first New York exhibition of his photographs was in the 1997 Whitney Biennial. Since then his work has been just as elusive. There was one show of the early black and white documentary style work done when he snuck into Penn Station as it was being demolished in the 1960’s. And now another trove of his work from 1960 to 62 is on display: his Coney Island portfolio.

Photo by Aaron Rose . Source: mcny.org
Aaron Rose, "Untitled, Coney Island 1961-63"

There are two things that strike the viewer as you enter this expansive show. First is the color, described as golden, to reflect the tanned skin on display, but to this old color printer it cries out, “Let’s start by adding 20 points of cyan and work from there.” The second is what a wimp this guy was. Almost all the pictures are done with a long telephoto lens. All right, the crowd scenes are compressed to make them denser, but more troubling are all the voyeuristic views of beach-goers whose privacy-in-the-crowd has been surreptitiously breached.

Of course, you soon get over these 21st century misgivings and start to enjoy peeping at the couple smooching on the blanket, right there next to the fat lady evaluating her equally fat husband, and my, ‘Isn’t that bikini top just a little bit too low? ‘And soon the show starts to get a bit hazy, like a long day at the beach, with one small observation following the next as the crowds swirl past.

Photo by Aaron Rose . Source: mcny.org
Aaron Rose, "Untitled, Coney Island 1961-63"

Only a few pictures rise up above the rest. A stupendously buffed man in what may be the only posed scene) shows off his physique while an oblivious couple entertain themselves in the background. In a clever exhibition design, several men are sprawled out on the floor and must be maneuvered around, just like on the beach. One print, the result of using that long telephoto lens, shows off the massive hands of a primly mustachioed man. And two men, both dressed in casual white, share an affectionate moment, in 1961, in the privacy of the Coney Island beach.

Photo by Aaron Rose . Source: mcny.org
Aaron Rose, "Untitled, Coney Island 1961-63"

Like the Coney Island beach, this exhibition is not really the best one around, but it’s cool, and it has it’s moments of interest, and better, it has none of that sticky brown sand.

Aaron Rose
In a World of Their Own: Coney Island Photographs


Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Ave.
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212 534 1672
mcny.org

Friday, May 9 to
Sunday, August 3, 2014
Hours: Tues - Sun 10 to 5
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