Boston Public Library
Jules Aarons Collection
Print Department
3rd Floor, McKim Building, Central Library

Jules Aarons and His Photography

Jules Aarons: In the Neighborhood

Jules Aarons: In the Street

A collection of photographs by the Boston photographer Jules Aarons. Aarons, a physicist and engineer by trade and a professor at Boston University, began photographing seriously in 1947. Influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Street Photographers of New York, Aarons went with his camera into the streets of Boston and with great skill and sympathy photographed people in the streets of the West End, North End and other neighborhoods. As a serious amateur, Aarons photographed all over the world, photographing extensively in Paris, South America and other countries.

In 1999, the Boston Public Library held an exhibit of Jules Aarons’ photographs of Boston and published a catalogue illustrated with a selection of his Boston work.


Jules Aarons and His Photography
by Bernard Margolis
Fomer President, Boston Public Library

Early in his career as an engineer and a scientist, Jules Aarons had little opportunity to take a creative role in the projects to which he was assigned. Fresh out of the military and still studying for his Masters in Physics at Boston University, he worked primarily as an assistant to more senior people. Feeling a need for a creative outlet, he turned to photography.

He had been interested in photography before his service as a Radio and Radar Officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, but he now set himself upon a course to master all aspects of the photographic craft. During his studies in physics, he found the time to take a class in optics because he believed it would give him a greater understanding of the action of light and lens. In 1947 he set up his first darkroom at home and taught himself how to develop film and to make fine prints. Methodical and disciplined from his scientific training, he studied not only the technical aspects of photography but also its history and its art.

Although self-taught as a photographer, Jules Aarons did receive valuable criticism through his contact with the photographer Sid Grossman in Provincetown, Massachusetts in the late 1940s. It was also in Provincetown that he met Lisette Model, whose life-affirming approach to photographing people was a distinct influence on his work. But despite the profound influence of the work of these practitioners, the greatest influence on Jules Aarons was his childhood.

Aarons was raised in the streets of the city. Born in the Bronx in 1921, he grew up in the same neighborhood in which he was born. Even in his college years he would take the subway every day to his classes at the City College of New York and return home by subway at night. It is no accident that he turned his camera on the neighborhoods of Boston. For him it was a way of reconnecting to his childhood. The streets were his home.

Jules Aarons’ photographs have found their perfect home in the collections of the Boston Public Library. The Boston Public Library was the first public library to establish a branch system to bring the opportunity of self-education to all parts of the city. Every Boston neighborhood that Aarons photographed has or had its own branch that served not only as a library but as the community center. The branch libraries of the Boston Public Library played, and continue to play, an integral role in the education of the children of the neighborhoods, the same children captured at play in the photographs of Jules Aarons. We celebrate the work in the pages which follow as a tribute to photographer Jules Aarons and to the great neighborhoods of our city of Boston.

Jules Aarons: In the Neighborhood
by Aaron Schmidt
Formerly of the Print Department

When Jules Aarons began photographing in the neighborhoods of Boston in the late 1940s, there were other, less sympathetic eyes studying the streets. The era of post-war urban renewal was about to begin and neighborhoods such as the West End were targeted for destruction. The city government and the business community in Boston did not see the homes of generations of families, and kids playing in the street, they saw slums that needed to be cleared and the opportunity for fiscal growth. Some of the residents of the neighborhoods, lured by the promise of a house and lawn, would soon be loading up the new family car and taking off for the suburbs. Jules Aarons was documenting the end of an era of stability and community in many Boston neighborhoods.

If Jules Aarons had not been a skilled photographer with a sharp sense of timing and had merely taken a camera into Boston’s neighborhoods and randomly snapped pictures, he would have still produced an important body of work. In his photographs, researchers in projects both professional and personal would have found valuable information on life in Boston; his photographs would have become important historical documents.

But Jules Aarons took more than a camera into the streets. He took his skill in composition, his feeling for the exact instant, his patience for the shot and most importantly, his sympathy for the subject. He then added the finishing touch: his experience in the darkroom and the drive to create the perfect print for each image. With skill and compassion, he produced photographs that are both document and art.

On first glance, many of his photographs do not appear to be candid. They have the richness of detail and drama of movie stills. The movement of the people appears choreographed and the background of the photos have the perfection of detail of a stage set. But on a closer look, the photographs hit you with a spontaneity and complexity of detail that are beyond artifice, the result of Aarons’ skill as a photographer and his connection to his subject.

His concentration on his subject, the street life of Boston, and his artistry as a photographer allowed him to create images that are not unreal but hyper-real. Like O. Winston Link’s photographs of steam trains or W. Eugene Smith’s photographs of G.I.’s during World War II, Jules Aarons’ photographs capture the drama of life in an instant, amplifying instead of altering reality. His photographs condense to a frozen moment, an era and a place: the neighborhoods of Boston.

Jules Aarons: Into the Streets
by Jules Aarons

It is difficult for me to define my photographs of Boston. Are they documentary, the exact instant, streetscapes? All photographers have to be set in the historical stream or, perhaps, a unique offshoot diverted from the flow.

Photographers carve a piece of a physical scene, a landscape, a portrait, or a dramatic situation. The photograph narrows the field of view and focuses on his interest. My focus is on "people pictures." The photographs are of people and city streets depicting the everyday life in the streets of Boston. They do not encompass violent or confrontational situations such as riots or rallies. They do not encompass the troubled state of the homeless.

Photography leans heavily on the tools of the camera. The camera has the unique ability to capture a moment of time. There is the exact instant and the exact space that’s enveloped. In a sense all photographs are historical because they are frozen in time. When people are photographed they are rigidly frozen against their backgrounds. Photographs are also unique in recording detail. Whether it is the weather-beaten siding on a house or age-beaten wrinkles on an older man’s face, the details can form the dramatic thrust of a photograph. It is the combination of freezing time and detail that make photography unique.

But photographs do not represent the truth. Photographs are never truthful. They can only capture a moment in time and a single perspective of the event. The exact instant is only an instant; it is not long term truth about a person or a scene. The printing of the photograph further distorts the truth because the printing can be done with varying contrasts, highlighting or de-emphasizing details. Perhaps the printer used high contrast paper with its deep blacks and highly reflecting whites emphasizing peeling on a wall. Perhaps he blots out details using a soft gray scale for the area. All this can be done in the developing process without using the retouching brush.

At the minimum an artist can capture his place and time. At best it can be done with a sense of design and drama. My focus was on the people and the design of the photograph. I used a camera, a waist level twin lens reflex, that had rarely been used for "candid" or documentary shots. Cartier-Bresson and most of the New York photographers used eye level 35mm Leicas. My use of the twin lens reflex with its 2 1/4" square format for the negative allowed for a different kind of street photography. It allowed me to face in one direction and turn the camera at right angles in another direction. The subjects did not always know the photograph was being taken. The photographer who has to hold his camera at eye level telegraphs his intentions. In addition the larger negative area of the 2 1/4" square format was able to capture more detail. The photographer can then deal with detail as an artist does with portions of his painting, for example, bringing it to the fore in the case of graffiti in the inner city or losing it when depicting shadow patterns at an elevated station. He completes his contribution in the printing, pushing some portions of the photo into prominence and pulling other portions into the background.

Historically many photographers have worked in the city streets and have photographed people. Although I have tried to develop an individual style, I have also been influenced by photographers in the mainstream of the history of photography.


The History of Photography and My Gleanings:

Plucking admired masters from the stream of photographers, I go back to the 1860s and the pioneering work by Matthew Brady in the realm of people pictures. He had as a background the Civil War drama of people and events. His photographs were formalized and were frozen in time with the subject fully aware of the photographic focus on their situation. The awareness that photographs were being taken, combined with the large cameras and cumbersome chemistry of photography of the period, severely limited photographs of people and places. In spite of this, photographs of the Brady era captured a combination of time and the human environment.

As a group, French photographers in a lineage starting with Atget and leading up to Cartier-Bresson pulled together the new capability to capture people, places, and the exact instant. Roaming in Paris, Atget came upon configurations of shops and people. He encountered and captured on film individuals in the street and put them together. His work froze elements of contemporary history. He did not photograph large scale events such as wars or large assemblies but focused both his camera and his artistry on people and shops, people and markets, and people and streets; sometimes just the shops and streets.

Next, a group of photographers came to the fore, moving along with the technology that enabled them to take active street scenes. This was an advance over posing individuals against a background such as Atget portrayed. Ronis, Doisneau, Lisette Model, Boubat-all concentrated on people. The use of the smaller camera allowed the photographer to pounce on the exact instant. The photographer became less visible to his subjects than the photographer who set his apparatus on a tripod to steady the shot. With this timing advantage and with the singling out of people, it was necessary for photographers to develop a new talent: the ability to configure the final photograph almost instantaneously.

Before this time, photographers generally configured the final print when taking the picture. With a large format camera on a tripod, the photographer could frame and focus the image, figure out the exposure, even add or remove objects from the field of view, all before exposing the negative. In the shift to smaller cameras and to "exact instant" photography, there was a new need to deal with whatever was on the negative. In the printing process, the photographer has to decide what is to be included and what is to be minimized in the final print. He has to deal with a specific format of the camera he uses in the taking of the picture but he can select any part of the negative he wishes when making the print. He must then choose the contrast.

The design strength introduced by Cartier-Bresson was the next element of importance that I tried to bring to the finished photograph. Many of the other photographers in France homed in on people and the excitement of their backgrounds but few had put together the photograph as a total design structure. Cartier-Bresson was able to see the totality of his instant photograph. He had a feeling for design that few others had. His pictures come full blown with drama, with capturing of an exact instant as well as his genius in organizing the design of the final photograph, (Cartier-Bresson did not print his photographs but insisted on using the entire negative). He achieved a total structure where many others failed.


My Photographic History:

During my college days at the City College of New York (1938-1942), I randomly took photographs of the city, primarily of buildings and sites; it introduced me to the technical aspects of the camera. I did not deal with either darkroom techniques or the history of photography at the time.

Coming out of the military service in 1945, I again became interested in photography, primarily to picture people in the city. At that time there was a group of photographers, almost exclusively in New York, taking photographs of life in the city. In a sense they had seen the approach of Brassai, Cartier-Bresson and Lisette Model and homed in on life in New York. The relative ease of moving in the city and finding configurations of people and their physical backgrounds made it exciting. The creative and real-time aspect of this approach was composing the free movement of people against their background of buildings, cars, streets, etc. There was action in the neighborhoods where people lived, played and worked. They took their photographs in working class areas since the rich didn’t play out their games and relationships in the streets. This slanted their work and indeed this group of photographers related their photography to social improvement. Helen Levitt, Sid Grossman, Lisette Model, Leon Levinstein among others captured the drama of life in the streets of the city. Children were prominent in the photographs but they included adults. There was little propaganda in these photographs. Just people making due and relating to other people.

Influenced by these New York photographers, in 1947 I began to take black and white photographs with the aim to document Boston, its streets and its people, while also developing my own style. I resolved to capture the day-to-day life experiences of the people, avoiding scenes of poverty. I had grown up in New York City and seen the extremes. I knew that the dynamics of people whose social relationships involved their neighbors and the streets could be a source of creativity. The drama of living is more fully played out in the streets of the city, particularly areas with apartment houses. Kids and adults interact in the street. They chat, they admire the babies, they play cards, they stroll, they sit and watch the drama. Viewing the photographs, one thing that pops out is that there wasn’t the clutter of automobiles that envelop city streets today. The very absence of cars filling the streets allowed a greater concentration on people. City people used public transportation. And they frequently used neighborhood stores, groceries, shoe repair shops, barbers. In the North End they shopped for fruit and vegetables on Saturday in the pushcart market. All this was available to the photographer.

I began photographing in the West End, a vital neighborhood with kids and adults playing and living in the streets. At the time I photographed there, (1947-1953), the West End was an integrated area where people seemed to get along. The black kids played with the white kids, mindless of color differences. The West End had very set boundaries and was a vigorously alive residential neighborhood in the 1940s and the 1950s. Bordered by the Charles River, Beacon Hill, the Financial District and the North End and included today’s Charles River Park and Massachusetts General Hospital, the area had a history of channeling immigrants into the Boston area. There were Italian, Jewish, and Black families. There were specialty Jewish stores and Italian festas. Even the buildings were of interest, many with external decorations.

But the West End was to be a casualty of urban renewal. In 1953 the City of Boston targeted the neighborhood for redevelopment and in 1958 the demolition took place. Along with the residential area, Scollay Square, Boston’s Times Square, was "revitalized," bulldozed and renamed Government Center because to some Scollay Square meant bars, burlesque houses and the homeless.

Although I lost the West End as a subject, I was also photographing in other neighborhoods in the Boston area like the South End, South Boston, Chelsea and, especially, the North End.

The North End’s Italian-American population was more homogenous than the West End, but very dynamic. I photographed the open air market on Saturdays, people conversing in the streets, the Festas, the politician Gabriel Piemonte, the boxer Tony De Marco, and religious activities. Over the years I have spent more time in the North End than in any other section of Boston, photographing there from 1947 to 1975. I was able to capture the older people, children and parents, teenagers horsing around, kids playing ball in the streets, families, and men getting together on street corners on Sunday morning. During the summer, the North End abounds with Feast Days for the Saints with parades, pushcart food, and a plethora of people. One can wander in the area with a camera without being noticed since there are many other picture takers.

From 1953 on, I traveled frequently to Europe. Later I visited South America. When I did research or attended conferences in areas all over the world, I made time to photograph in the streets.

On my first stay in Paris in 1953 and 1954, I took photographs that the curator of photography of the Bibliotheque Nationale stated showed Paris in the last stages of the 19th Century, (no cars in the streets for example). I came frequently to Paris both on vacations and for business purposes, (I was involved with a NATO group that had its headquarters in Paris). This allowed me to photograph the street life of Paris until 1975.

In 1981, I stopped taking and printing photographs. From working in the darkroom my eyes became too sensitive to photographic chemicals. Because I could no longer control the print making, I decided I had to stop actively working with the medium. Photographs reproduced or copied do not compare with photographs viewed directly. In the original photographic print, blacks can be all shades of black, dull on matte paper or rich on other papers. On different papers whites reflect vastly differing amounts of light, a function of the surface of the paper. I used a glossy paper that was not given a high gloss in the drying process. My feeling was that the subjects had a "romantic" quality (they were human), and this had to be offset somewhat by a harsh presentation. Without my ability to control this part of the process, I felt that I should not continue.

Another factor in my giving up photography was the growing paranoia about photographers. It is not always unwarranted. The subject of the photograph asks "Is the photographer interested in me particularly and if so, why? Could the photographer's purpose not be benign?" These are not idle thoughts. I’ve encountered threats in a Paris market and on the streets of the North End beginning in the 1970s. In recent years a photographer had to sign an agreement with the community to photograph in the neighborhood.

Although in the United States it has become more difficult to photograph people in the streets there are still places where people gather and are still willing to be photographed, places like beaches or the mall. In many areas of the world people still live in the streets. In these places the background forms and the juxtaposition of people with their background are waiting to be photographed.

About the Photographer

Three girls

Three Girls, West End
Photograph by Jules Aarons - ca. 1947


St. Patricks Day

The Cigar, St. Patrick's Day, South Boston
Photograph by Jules Aarons - ca. 1950s


Catalog Cover

Into the Streets, 1947 - 1976
Photographs of Boston by
Jules Aarons