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Aaron Rose, Photographer Whose Work Long Went Unseen, Dies at 84

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 half a century. Mr. 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 didn’t exhibit often. The surreptitious Coney Island work didn’t 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.”

Mr. Rose was that rarest of artists: one who doesn’t 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.

Mr. Rose had his own darkroom processes that enabled him to imbue black-and-white images with hues of pink and blue, orange and gold.

“I think of myself as partly an alchemist,” he said.

Paul Goldberger, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, wrote that 1997 Times article about Mr. Rose.

“He lived a quiet, private life of creative brilliance, in seclusion in the center of the maelstrom of New York,” Mr. Goldberger said by email.

Mr. Rose died at 84 on Feb. 7 at his longtime home in the SoHo section of Manhattan, his wife, Louise Rose, said. She did not state the cause.

Aaron Rosenweig was born on March 22, 1936, in Manhattan. His wife said that his father, William, had never acknowledged him as his son and that his mother, Rose, was institutionalized at the time of his birth. Aaron was raised in foster homes. He adopted Rose as his last name when he became a professional photographer.

His introduction to photography came when a portrait photographer he had met at one of those foster homes hired him as an assistant to hold lights and reflectors.

“He was somebody who gave me something to do,” Mr. Rose told Bloomberg in 2014. “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.”

When Mr. Rose graduated from the High School of Performing Arts in 1955, he went into commercial photography and eventually began shooting pictures for his own pleasure. On the side he collected antique hand tools, which proved a vital pastime: In the 1960s he sold his collection of tools to the Eli Lilly Company for a considerable sum, and in 1969 he used the proceeds to buy a building in SoHo, a neighborhood that was about to transition from industrial to trendy. He rented out part of the building to support himself and lived and worked in the rest.

He resisted the pull and pressures of the New York art world, preferring to keep his work to himself. And whereas other art photographers might make a series of sellable prints of the same image, striving for uniformity among them, “that was almost the opposite of what Aaron did,” said Sean Corcoran, curator of prints and photographs at the Museum of the City of New York. “Every photograph was a unique piece.”

Mr. Rose made his own cameras and other devices, and Rebecca Hackemann, who was his assistant and archivist from 1999 to 2005, said his studio was a sight to behold.

“It was littered with glass and silver globes, optical devices and cameras he had built himself that replaced lenses with pinholes,” she said by email. “It was like walking into a different century.”

In his darkroom, he spurned the ready-made chemicals available from Kodak and other manufacturers; its walls were lined with bottles and cans full of mysterious substances.

“I had never seen a darkroom like this one,” Dr. Hackemann, now an associate professor of photography and art at Kansas State University, said. “The feeling I got upon entering was that I was entering into a wonder workshop of sorts, a shrine or a magical place.”

Though Mr. Rose shunned exhibiting his works for many years, his thinking began to change in the 1990s.

“He wasn’t interested really in selling them,” Mr. Corcoran said in a phone interview. “He was interested in them being seen.”

In 1995 he exhibited nature photographs at the John Froats Gallery in the Hudson River village of Cold Spring, N.Y.

“Their strongest feature is light that gives the impression of emanating from the images themselves,” Vivien Raynor wrote in The Times. “Mr. Rose’s photography is in the world but not of it.”

Then, in 1997, came the Whitney Biennial. In 2001 Mr. Rose published a book of his work.

“The way he finds grandeur in small things and intimate effects in the heavens conjures associations with Walt Whitman,” Robert L. Pincus wrote of that volume in 2001 in The San Diego Union-Tribune.

In the 1960s, when the original Pennsylvania Station was being torn down — an act many in the architectural and historic-preservation worlds considered a travesty — Mr. Rose went to the site after the crews had left for the day and photographed the devastation.

“Making those pictures took a toll on him, and he never even processed them for many years,” Mr. Corcoran said. Once he did, he found that they had fogged with age. He could have fixed that in the darkroom when he made prints for “The Last Days of Penn Station,” a 2002 exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, but he left the images hazy.

“It really adds to the feeling of loss and despair,” Mr. Corcoran said.

Mr. Rose’s marriages to Barbara Ellenborgen and Jessica Williams ended in divorce. He also had a relationship with Donna Mitchell. In 2001 he married Louise Hedley, who survives him, as does a son from his first marriage, Warren, and a son from his third marriage, Jules.

Mr. Goldberger, in his email, recalled his meeting with Mr. Rose for the 1997 Times article.

“When I went to his loft in SoHo,” he said, “I remember feeling as if I had stepped into a kind of New York that up to then had existed only in the imagination — a city where talented artists could afford to live and pursue their work with passion and without distraction.”

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