Photographer Robert Rosen takes celebrities in unsupervised moments – often with their permission

Over his four-decade career, Robert Rosen has had countless fleeting late-night encounters with iconic household names.

Often it would be at a party or a nightclub and he usually held a glass of champagne and a pocket camera.

The social and fashion photographer has photographed Grace Jones, Nina Simone and David Bowie, often capturing them in unsupervised moments.

And his secret to getting those remarkable shots?

“Sometimes you have to be invisible or just blend in,” Rosen told ABC RN’s The Drawing Room.

One such celebrity – someone whose print recently sold for almost US$200 million – influenced the direction of his career.

“After the meeting…I called Polaroid in London…and said I wanted to collect signed Polaroids of famous people.”

The photography company sent him a camera and an unlimited supply of his signature instant film.

Daniella Parmar and David Bowie at the Blitz Club in London in 1979. (Photographer: Robert Rosen)

Since then, he’s taken hundreds of celebrity portraits at parties and nightclubs, both on Polaroid and regular film.

A new study of his work, Glitterati, is currently on display at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney and brings together the best images of his life behind the lens.

Capturing affection

Rosen was often a welcome guest at parties and nightclubs, and well-known subjects in his photos were happy to pose.

While he loved photographing celebrities, he says he also loved capturing the loving moments between them, something he could only do when he blended in with everyone.

“I would just put the camera in my pocket, and the security or whoever was at the door would just wave me through – that’s what happened with the photo of Paul McCartney, the photo of the fuck,” he said.

“I love seeing people kissing and that affection and warmth [spilling out] in the room.

A person stands in front of a display of old black and white portraits of celebrities hugging and kissing.
Rosen has long collected photographs of well-known people kissing. (Provided: MAAS/Robert Rosen)

“If I was talking to someone at a party, I always look over their shoulder. And so, if I see someone about to kiss, I’ll just say to [the person I’m talking to]’Excuse me,’ and I’ll rush over and take the picture, then go back and continue our conversation.”

From the suburbs to the catwalks

Rosen grew up in suburban Melbourne, after her family emigrated from South Africa in 1960.

After high school he studied photography at Prahran Technical College but withdrew after a teacher pressured him to take a more business-like approach.

Photo of a model in a frilly dress walking down the catwalk with confetti falling on her.
Model Anneliese Seubert in the Aurelio Costarella show during Australian Fashion Week 2010, photographed by Rosen. (Photographer: Robert Rosen)

He loved capturing interesting characters and so, not wanting to be deterred by his own style, he jumped at the chance to move to Kings Cross in Sydney.

“Kings Cross was in the middle of it with hookers on the street, drag queens in little clubs and stuff like that. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is it. I want to be here,'” he said.

He also wanted to be a fashion photographer and started as a freelancer, but didn’t work much in Sydney.

Kylie Minogue and Michael Hutchence at her 30th birthday party in Sydney, 1990.
Kylie Minogue and Michael Hutchence at her 30th birthday party in Sydney, 1990, photographed by Robert Rosen. (Photographer: Robert Rosen)

So, in 1975, he moved to London and began to walk around the city, showing his portfolio to well-known photographers.

Getting a foot in the door proved harder than he initially thought, and he couldn’t afford 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 outgoing, and we went out almost every night to trendy restaurants and nightclubs like the Embassy Club,” he says.

It was there that he noticed photographers taking pictures of the celebrities who frequented the place. Photographers would sell them to 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 club owner liked his non-intrusive style and soon made him the official photographer of the Embassy Club.

Here, and in many other London locations, he would take many of his candid celebrity photographs.

Autographed Polaroid of singer, songwriter and civil rights activist Nina Simone in London in 1981.
Singer, songwriter and civil rights activist Nina Simone photographed by Rosen in London in 1981. (Photographer: Robert Rosen)

Not all the glitz and glamor

Building celebrity relationships played a big part in her career, but it wasn’t all glitz and glamour.

When he lived in London, he sometimes attended up to six parties or vernissages each evening.

“My work day would start around 6 p.m. I would go to an art gallery grand opening or a book launch, or something like that. Then [I’d] go to a fabulous restaurant for dinner and then hit the clubs until three or four in the morning,” he recalled.

“Then we would go to Piccadilly for breakfast at one of those hotels and then come home and go to bed around 9 or 10.”

He laughs at the memories. “I’m still alive. Shit, now I still can’t sleep until about 2am.”

Rosen then worked for various fashion magazines including Vogue Australia. He would often photograph fashion shows with his trademark style.

“It started the fashion career doing shows, doing the London shows, then going to the Paris shows,” he says.

After living in London for a while, he returned home to Australia and started working for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue.

But after working for fashion magazines for 35 years, Rosen has retired. He now lives in Bali, far from the hustle and bustle of London.

“It gets a little tiring, you know, this stuff and stuff that goes on all night. And I just thought, well, I did everything I could or whatever I wanted to.”

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