Over the course of his four-decades long career, Robert Rosen had countless, fleeting, late-night encounters with iconic household names.
Often, it would be at a party or nightclub and usually he would be holding a glass of champagne and a pocket camera.
The social and fashion photographer snapped the likes of Grace Jones, Nina Simone and David Bowie, often capturing them in unguarded moments.
And his secret to getting those remarkable shots?
“You’ve got to be invisible at times or just blend in,” Rosen tells ABC RN’s The Drawing Room.
One of those celebrities — someone whose print recently sold for nearly US$200 million — influenced the direction of his career.
“After the meeting… I rang Polaroid in London… and said that I wanted to do a collection of autographed Polaroids of famous people.”
The photography company sent him a camera and an unlimited amount of its iconic instant film.
Since then, he’s snapped hundreds of portraits of celebrities at parties and nightclubs, both on Polaroid and regular film.
A new survey of his work, Glitterati, is currently on display at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, and it collects the best images from his lifetime behind the lens.
Rosen was often a welcome guest at parties and nightclubs, and the well-known subjects of his photos were happy to pose.
While he enjoyed photographing celebrities, he says he also relished capturing affectionate moments between them, something he could only do when he blended in with everyone else.
“I would just put the camera in my pocket, and the security or whoever’s on the door just waved me through — which is what happened with the Paul McCartney photo, the kissing photo,” he says.
“I just love to see people kissing and that affection and warmth [spilling out] into the room.
“If I was talking to someone at a party, I’m always looking over their shoulder. And so, if I see somebody about to kiss, I’ll just say to [the person I’m talking to]’excuse me’, and I’ll rush over and do the photo, and then go back and continue our conversation.”
From the suburbs to the catwalks
Rosen grew up in suburban Melbourne, after his family emigrated from South Africa in 1960.
After high school, he studied photography at Prahran Technical College but pulled out after a teacher pressured him to take a more commercial approach.
He enjoyed capturing interesting characters and so, not wanting to be deterred from his own style, he jumped at the opportunity to move to Kings Cross in Sydney.
“Kings Cross was in the middle of it with the prostitutes on the street, the drag queens in the little nightclubs and stuff like that. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is it. I want to be here’,” he says.
He also wanted to be a fashion photographer and started off as a freelancer but didn’t get much work in Sydney.
So in 1975, he moved to London and began traipsing around the city, showing his portfolio to well-known photographers.
Getting a foot in the door proved to be harder than he initially thought, and he couldn’t afford to get his own studio, so he worked as a barman on the Kings Road. The city’s nightlife offered many opportunities.
“I had a wonderful girlfriend who was very social, and we would go out nearly every night to the fashionable restaurants and into the nightclubs like the Embassy Club,” he says.
It was at this venue that I have noticed photographers taking pictures of the celebrities who frequented the place. The photographers would sell them to the newspapers the next day.
So Rosen decided to try it too.
“I took my little camera and started photographing [the celebrities] and because they knew me, because I was there every night, [they were happy to pose],” he says.
The owner of the club liked his non-intrusive style and soon made him the Embassy Club’s official photographer.
Here, and at many other London venues, he would snap many of his candid celebrity photographs.
Not all glitz and glamor
Building celebrity connections played a large role in his career, but it wasn’t all glitz and glamour.
When he was living in London, he’d sometimes attend up to six parties or openings each night.
“My working day would start about 6pm in the evening. I’d go to an art gallery opening or a book launch, or something like that. Then [I’d] go for a dinner at some fabulous restaurant, and then hit the nightclubs until three or four in the morning,” he recalls.
“Then we’d go for breakfast in Piccadilly in one of those hotels, and then go home and go to bed at about 9am or 10am.”
He laughs at the memories. “I’m still alive. Hell, now I still can’t sleep until about 2am.”
Rosen went on to work for various fashion magazines, including Vogue Australia. He would often photograph fashion shows with his trademark style.
“That started the fashion career of doing catwalks, doing the London shows and then going to the Paris shows,” he says.
After living in London for some time, he returned home to Australia and began working for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue.
But after working for the fashion magazines for 35 years, Rosen retired. He now lives in Bali, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of London.
“It gets a bit tiring, you know, those all-night things and stuff. And I just thought, well, I’ve done all that I can or all that I want.”
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