legendary photographer robert rosen on his life behind the velvet rope
Robert spent every night for a year choosing his favourite shots of everyone from Grace Jones and David Bowie to Michael Hutchence for his new book 'Glitterati - Shooting Fashion Fame and Fortune'.
Photography Robert Rosen
When Robert Rosen's early painting teacher handed him a Pentax camera, while politely suggesting the student consider alternative career paths, he inadvertently helped launch the career of one of Australia's most important social photographers. With a natural eye and genuine interest in the life of his subjects, Robert has spent decades travelling between Europe and Australia, befriending and photographing influential characters at the centre of creative culture. Peter Morrissey, the fashion designer who Robert shot on various occasions, once remarked that his pictures captured "the heart and soul of the times, not just the moment," and it's true. All dressed up and armed simply with a small, non-threatening camera, Robert was a fixture at era-defining clubs, parties and parades where he gained the trust and respect of the personalities he shot. From Mick and Jerry to Kylie and Michael, Robert was there documenting it all, long before the age of social media.
Robert's new book, Glitterati - Shooting Fashion Fame and Fortune is a collection of his favourite shots from his enormous back catalogue. While some of the images were published years ago during his time at publications like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, there are others that have never been seen. We caught up with Robert on the eve of his book launch to ask about some of the stories behind his iconic images.
Congrats on your new book Robert. Your photography career spanned decades, what is it that ties these shots together?
There are shots from the 80s and 90s and then the 2000s as well. It includes the celebrity photos, the fashion work from London and Paris catwalks in the 80s and 90s and then backstage shots from the first fifteen years of Australian Fashion Week. There are also my studio portraits, which I'm really excited about as they've never been published before!
You live in Bali now, right? Do you enjoy it, do you still take photos there?
I love it in Bali, it's a great life with an interesting mixture of people living here and there's always something fun to do. I've got a studio set up in the house here so if I meet anyone amazing looking, I invite them to have their portrait taken. I still carry a camera around at all times too so if we're going up into the mountains for example, we'll photograph interesting characters in the villages and the rice fields. It's a completely different world but it's still fascinating to me.
You were quite young when you started taking pictures.
Yes, I went out one weekend while I was still at school and started shooting on film. A friend at the time had a dark room. He taught me to develop pictures and I never looked back. I just thought this is magic. Most of my teachers were quite discouraging and told me I'd have to be more commercial if I wanted to succeed so rather than listen to them, I just got up one day and left. In Sydney I met so many amazing people who were the first I really photographed.
What was Sydney like then?
After Melbourne, Sydney was so buzzy and electric. I mean I was only nineteen and I was walking around seeing all the strippers and drag queens, it was sort of a beautiful circus. I thought they were incredible and they were great subjects who loved to be photographed.
And when did you leave for London?
In 1975 I packed up and left. I only knew Richard Sharah, the incredible Australian makeup artist who was living in London but he introduced me to Zandra Rhodes and a few other people in the fashion industry. I also met a writer named Cherry Ripe, we'd go to concerts together and inevitably end up backstage getting great stories. It didn't click for quite a while but eventually I met a woman who was at the centre of London's social scene and she'd take me to all the parties. I remember asking a couple of photographers what they were doing there and they just pointed to Bianca Jagger over there and Rod Stewart over there. They told me that if I took their photo, I could sell them to the newspapers. I thought, I'm going to these parties anyways so I might as well make some money. And that's how it started.
Some solid dance floor advice. Do you think you seemed exotic to them, being Australian?
Yes, oh yes. Plus I had long hair and wore all black clothes and they loved it. I've always loved fashion, which helped me get into parties even if I didn't have an invitation.
And you shot a lot at the infamous Embassy and Blitz clubs.
It was such a good time. It was there I met Boy George, who was a cloakroom boy. Marilyn and Billy Idol used to go there too. The neo-romantics and punks would come from all over England to get into the Blitz club but if the owner didn't like how they were dressed, they wouldn't get in. Most of the kids were too poor to buy their own clothes so they'd make them, which was even better. I'd be asked to bring my camera and was the only one allowed upstairs to photograph people like David Bowie or Bob Geldof.
Your backstage shots from Australian Fashion week work so well alongside these images. What brought you back to Australia?
An opportunity to work at a newly launched Harper's Bazaar in 1985. My friend Lee Tulloch approached me about coming on as the social photographer so I took the job and worked with her before going to Vogue Australia for another thirty-odd years. During that time the magazines would fly me over to Paris and London once a year, so I got to go back, see all the shows and catch up with friends.
What's one photo you're really proud of?
I love the shot of Paul and Linda McCartney kissing. As soon as I had it developed I just thought, wow, I did that. I sent them a print but didn't hear anything more until a few months later, when, Paul and Linda turned up to a gallery event I happened to be at. At one point, Linda tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'are you ignoring us?' She gave me a big hug and told me they loved the photo. That obviously meant a great deal to me.
So cool! Who else did you meet in your line of work?
I met Andy Warhol in London in 1980 at a dinner at Oxford Uni. There were only about thirty people there so I just took photos of Andy and the other guests. Towards the end of the night I went into the kitchen to get a drink and realised the guy who'd given me a lift had left and I had no way of getting back to London. I saw Andy Warhol and realised he probably had a big car so I just went up to him and asked if I could get a lift. He said yes, told me he loved my red shirt and that his favourite dish was potato salad.
During the ride home I told him I'd really like to do some work for Interview magazine. He said to bring my portfolio and have tea with him at the Ritz the next day. I turned up and Andy was there with a pretentious guy in a bow tie who, as I remember, was reading Christopher Robin upside down. I showed Andy all my photos and he said "Robert could be our London correspondent for the fashion shows" but the pretentious guy, who happened to be Interview's publisher, responded, "Shut up Andy and pour the tea, I'll decide if he works for us." I was mostly offended that he was telling Andy Warhol to pour the tea! Really?
OMG, how annoying. Who else?
Michael Hutchence was a lovely man, really down to earth. I first met him at a dinner party when I was sitting next to him and didn't know who he was. I loved Marilyn because she got dressed up differently every night and just insisted I take her photo. I shot Grace Jones all around the world, she's super lovely. I always loved Nicole Kidman too, I sort of watched her grow up. She was always at the parties and was very gracious to me. There's just so many.
Did you ever meet fellow photographer Rennie Ellis?
Yes, in fact I think he taught me at school, he was definitely a teacher at Prahran Tech and doing social photography at the time as well. We actually became good friends. He was such a lovely man.
Between you two, there've been some really special moments documented.
Thank you. I also think we were lucky. Purse strings are much tighter these days. My job, as it was, simply doesn't exist any more.
Sad but true. Do you still love a party?
Oh yes of course, I'll always be a party boy.
Glitterati Shooting Fame Fashion and Fortune, New Holland Publishers RRP$79.99 available from all good bookstores or online.