Over the course of his four-decade career, Robert Rosen had numerous, fleeting, nighttime encounters with iconic household names.
Often it was at a party or in a nightclub and usually he had a glass of champagne and a pocket camera in hand.
The social and fashion photographer has photographed the likes of Grace Jones, Nina Simone and David Bowie, often in unguarded moments.
And his secret to taking those remarkable photos?
“Sometimes you have to be invisible or just blend in,” Rosen says ABC RN’s The Drawing Room.
One of those celebrities — someone whose print recently sold for nearly $200 million – influenced the direction of his career.
“After the meeting…I called Polaroid in London…and said I wanted to make 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 has shot hundreds of portraits of celebrities at parties and nightclubs, both on Polaroid and mainstream film.
A new overview of his work, Glitterati, is currently on display at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, collecting the best images of his life behind the lens.
Rosen was often a welcome guest at parties and nightclubs, and the well-known subjects in his photos liked to pose.
While he enjoyed shooting celebrities, he also loved capturing loving moments between them, something he could only do when he blended in with everyone else.
“I just put the camera in my pocket, and security or whoever was at the door just beckoned me through — and that’s 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] in the room.
“When I’m talking to someone at a party, I always look over their shoulder. And so, when I see someone about to kiss, I just say to [the person I’m talking to]’excuse me,’ and I’ll run over there and take the picture, then go back and continue our conversation.”
From the suburbs to the catwalks
Rosen grew up in a suburb of Melbourne after his family emigrated from South Africa in 1960.
After high school, he studied photography at Prahran Technical College, but dropped out after a teacher pressured him to take a more commercial approach.
He loved to capture interesting characters and so, not wanting to be put off by his own style, he jumped at the chance to move to Sydney’s Kings Cross.
“Kings Cross was right in the middle of it with the prostitutes on the street, the drag queens in the little nightclubs and things 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 as a freelancer, but didn’t get much work in Sydney.
So in 1975 he moved to London and began to stroll around the city and show his portfolio to well-known photographers.
Getting a foot in the door proved more difficult than he initially thought, and he couldn’t afford to get his own studio, so he worked as a bartender on Kings Road. The city’s nightlife offered many opportunities.
“I had a wonderful girlfriend who was very social, and we went out to the fashionable restaurants and nightclubs like the Embassy Club almost every night,” he says.
It was at this location that he saw 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 shooting [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 unobtrusive style and soon made him the official photographer of the Embassy Club.
Here, and in many other locations in London, he would shoot many of his candid celebrity photos.
Not all glitz and glamour
Building connections with celebrities played a big part in his career, but it wasn’t all glitz and glamour.
While living in London, he sometimes attended as many as six parties or openings a night.
“My working day started in the evening around 6pm. I went to an art gallery opening or a book launch or something like that. [I’d] eat out at a fantastic restaurant and then go to the nightclubs until three or four in the morning,” he recalls.
“Then we’d have breakfast in Piccadilly at one of those hotels, and then go home and go to bed at about 9 or 10 a.m.”
He laughs at the memories. “I’m still alive. Damn it, now I still can’t sleep until about 2 am.”
Rosen went on to work for several fashion magazines, including Vogue Australia. He often photographed fashion shows with his signature style.
“With that, the fashion career started by doing the catwalks, doing the shows in London and then going to the shows in Paris,” he says.
After living in London for a while, he returned to Australia and started working for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue.
But after 35 years working for the fashion magazines, Rosen retired. He now lives in Bali, far from the hustle and bustle of London.
“It gets a little tiring, you know, all night stuff and stuff. And I just thought, well, I’ve done everything I can or everything I want.”
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