Robert Rosen has been shooting the world’s most recognisable faces for decades. He’s partied with celebrities and socialites. He’s shot fashion in Paris, New York And Sydney. He shares a lifetime of rich experience with Andrew E. Hall.
ROBERT’S family moved from South Africa to Melbourne, Australia, when he was a youngster. He was schooled in the city and ended up studying photography at Prahran Tech after being told he was crap at painting by his art teacher.
“He said to me, ‘Robert you can’t paint, you’re hopeless … I’ll pass you but here’s a camera, why don’t you try it’.”
It was a good move.
I spent two years at Prahran Tech … it was a three-year course but some of the teachers said my work was too weird, and that I’d never make it as a photographer. One of them told me I was copying Andy Warhol and I’d never heard of him. I did some research to find out who he was, saw his stuff, and thought, ‘this guy is good’.
“Ten years later I’m at a party with Warhol, he invites me for tea the next day at his hotel, The Ritz in London … and I thought, ‘f**k you Prahran Tech’.”
“After Melbourne I moved to Sydney and mucked around there for a few years, just doing photos for myself and a magazine called Pole … and then I went to London,” Robert says.
In London he started photographing the rock ‘n’ roll scene and hooked up with a female journalist – the delightfully named Cherry Ripe – who covered the music festivals in the UK.
“Of course, I ran out of money and returned to Australia.”
In the late ’70s Robert returned to England and met a woman who was connected to the clubbing and celebrity circles.
“She was quite social so we went to all the fabulous parties and night clubs … and there was a particular club called the Embassy – which was the equivalent of New York’s Studio 54 – and we used to go there nearly every night,” Robert says.
“I saw photographers there shooting and I went up to one of them and asked him why he was there every night. He said: ‘There’s Bianca Jagger and there’s Rod Stewart and Elton’. And I said, ‘so?’”
“Well they’re here every night too,” says the shooter. “And if you shoot them you can sell the pictures to newspapers and make money.”
Robert went to London with the intention of shooting fashion but the logistics of finding studio space and the requisite paraphernalia was somewhat daunting. Taking pictures of celebrities in clubs seemed a better option.
“I started taking my camera to the Embassy and the Blitz Club which was run by Steve Strange and Boy George was there … and took my pictures around to newspapers and magazines,” Robert says.
“There was a monthly magazine called Ritz and they paid virtually nothing – maybe a pound a photo – but under every picture they put my name … so I got it out there. And everyone read Ritz – there were like 10 pages of social pics in each issue and everyone wanted to be in it.”
Robert branched out to shooting fashion for a number of magazines and became a freelancer for The Daily Mail newspaper.
In those days Robert shot almost exclusively in black and white.
“I love black and white … it makes people jump out of the photos more and your eye goes to a certain part of the picture, and there’s a beautiful contrast. It’s much more dramatic,” he says.
One of the secrets to Robert’s success was that he didn’t lug around a whole bunch of camera gear. He had one of the first small auto-focus cameras by Olympus which he could carry in his pocket.
“At film premiers and other events the requisite dress was black tie, so I’d always dress that way while the other photographers didn’t. The organisers would give the press about half an hour to shoot and then they would have to leave,” Robert says.
“But I just had my little camera in my pocket … and I’d go and have another glass of champagne. I’d wait until all the stars had had a lot of drinks and then pull out the camera. The overseas celebrities would think I was just another guest and would pose for me.
“I got some good photos like that …
“The others who knew me trusted me. It wasn’t like a real job – it was great fun.
“The notion of celebrity is really just in people’s minds. When you went to meet the “celebrities” some of them were just like little pussycats – they were more nervous than I was.
“I do, however, remember my heart pounding when I met Charlotte Rampling – who wouldn’t, she was gorgeous – at a party and asked if I could take her picture, and she asked me why.
“I said, ‘aren’t you Charlotte Rampling’ and she thought for a minute and said, ‘oh yes’.”
Robert, however, never regarded himself as part of the paparazzi – in fact he didn’t like them much.
“I don’t like the paparazzi … but someone labelled me ‘snaparazzi’ which I quite liked,” he says.
“When I was in London if I was invited to the parties, of course I would go. But if I wasn’t invited I wouldn’t go. I would never stand out on the street … I never liked to invade people’s privacy.
“There was one night I was at David Frost’s party and someone asked me if I was going to the music awards at Abbey Road. So off we went and all the paparazzi were standing around in the garden. I said, ‘what are you guys doing outside, it’s freezing’. “… but because I was dressed up (and had my little camera in my pocket) the security people thought I and the woman I was with were rock stars and ushered us through into the party. Suddenly we were pushed inside and the doors were closed, and we were standing next to Paul and Linda McCartney.”
Robert took a picture of them kissing which went around the world.
In the mid-‘80s Robert returned to Australia – to escape the English winters – and was asked to join a new magazine, which turned out to be the first Australian Harper’s Bazaar. The magazine folded after about a year and Robert took up a full – time position with Vogue – shooting and reporting on the social and fashion scenes.
Robert is pretty much retired these days and spends most of his time on Bali. He gets down to Dhyana Pura a couple of times a week to photograph the drag queens in the street.
“It’s a far cry from the London and Paris catwalks but it’s a lot of fun and I might put an exhibition together one day,” he says.
As our interview comes to a close there’s only one more question to ask: “Out of all the people you’ve met, who made a real impact on you … who was ‘real’?”
“Michael Hutchence (of INXS), Andrew Rhodes who is a jewellery designer, Marianne Faithful was a good friend … Linda McCartney was fantastic – after the kissing shot came out I sent (Paul and Linda) a copy of it. And about six months later I was at the opening of an art gallery and they were there … I didn’t say anything because I didn’t think they’d remember me. But Linda walked past me and asked, ‘are you ignoring me?’.
“She said, ‘come on darling, give me a hug’. And that was better than any money I got from the photo … that she acknowledged me.”
Main Image Robert Rosen, shot at his home in Bali by Anthony Dodds.
Marianne Faithfull, Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall: “Marianne Faithful and i went to Ossie Clarke’s fashion show in London together. She knew Mick was going to be there with Jerry and on the way she told she was a bit nervous about seeing him again as she actually hadn’t seen him in years. After the parade we were invited backstage for drinks and she went over and said hello to them. As i turned round and saw her with them she waved at me as if to say ‘I’m talking to them!’ and I snapped the moment…”
Kylie Minogue & Michael Hutchence. “This was taken at Michael’s 30th birthday party in sydney. It was a private affair, no photographers. I was invited as a friend and took the little snappy camera in my pocket. They didnt mind being photographed, as you can see.”
Issey Miyake & Grace Jones at Fashion Aid London 1985.
Chris Stein & Debbie Harry – “This was taken after one of their shows in London in 1979. I think she looks so beautiful in this photo.”
Bianca Jagger “I met Bianca at a club called Legends in Soho. She was having drinks with friends and I went up and asked her if I could take her photo. ‘Why?’ she said. ‘Because you’re one of the most beautiful women in the world,’ I said. ‘All right then!’ she replied.”
Andy Warhol and Fenella Fielding. “I met Andy at to a dinner for him in Oxford and when my friend left early I asked Andy for a lift back into London. On the way we talked and he told me his favourite dish was potato salad. And he liked my red shoes. Then he invited me to tea at the Ritz the next day and his party at Regines. He was a lovely down to earth person and a great influence on my life.”