Rose Shoshana

Photo by Olivia Fougeirol

“I see the connection we all have with each other, no matter what nationality, religion, color, orientation, and class.”

Rose Shoshana is a Santa Monica-based photography gallerist. Born in Israel, to Holacaust surviving parents, Shoshana emigrated to Detroit as a child and pursued a career in photography, first becoming an editorial photographer and later opening the internationally recognized gallery Rose Gallery. Rose Gallery represents modern and contemporary photographers including Bruce Davidson, Tania Fanco Klein, and Jo Ann Callis, to name a few. 

In this interview, Rose Shoshana shares how her parents' experience as Holocaust survivors led her to photography, what her relationship with artists and collectors is like, and how she finds inspiration for her gallery's exhibits.

TGL: How was your childhood?

RS: I was born in Israel some years after the Second World War. My parents both grew up in Warsaw and were in their early twenties when the nazis occupied Poland. Their parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, all perished in the camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Dachau. My parents were the only survivors.

My parents, Hanna and Yoself, met at a displaced persons camp in Feldafing, on the outskirts of Munich, after having been liberated from Auschwitz. My sister was one of the first children born in the camp. A few years later, they emigrated to Israel and I was born in a Tel Aviv hospital. We lived for the first years in a refugee camp in the Negev Desert until housing was made available.

Our home was quiet and somber. It was years before I came to understand that other families played, celebrated birthdays, and went on holidays. My parents and their small circle of friends, all Holocaust survivors, did not have an easy time in Israel. In the 1950s and even a decade later, the survivors were seen as somehow lesser than the heroic Israelis who just fought for the state’s independence. “Why didn’t they fight back?” I recall hearing this many times at school and in conversations around me. Reading was my salvation, my way of entering worlds other than my own and imagining the lives of others.

TGL: When did you move to the United States?

RS: Some years later we emigrated to the outskirts of Detroit in the United States. My parents worked long hours each day at menial jobs to provide a semblance of a 'normal' life for my sister and me. I draw strength from my memories of how they struggled to give what they could to feed, clothe, and educate us. They are the true heroes of my life and I honor them daily for having not only the fortitude to carry on, but also the ability to find an inner resourcefulness after years of unimaginable suffering and get up and move on.

TGL: Were you interested in photography as a child?

RS: There was a drawer of photographs in my parents' room and when I was alone, I spent hours looking at images I did not fully comprehend. There were no photographs of life before the Holocaust, only images of corpses layered on top of one another. I think my parents kept these as memento mori to give testimony as to what they had experienced. I believe my fascination with photographs was born with this drawer. I spent hours pouring over every single image, looking for expressions on the faces of the dead and trying to comprehend what no child could possibly make sense of. My heart would pound as I knew intuitively that I could not share this secret obsession with my parents or anyone else. These were my family pictures, the visual documents of my parents' histories.

TGL: What was your first job?

RS: I drifted around after high school. For so long I had been trying to fit into the culture of my contemporaries, but I was so 'uncool' and rudderless. I worked as a cocktail waitress at Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, a favorite haunt of jazz musicians and aficionados. I loved being around musicians. It was a revelation for me, it taught me that I could take on improvisation as a way to move forth in my life.

TGL: At which moment did you decide to focus on photography in your career?

RS: My sister got married and moved to Los Angeles and she invited me to visit. I fell in love with California. It was a coming home moment: the openness of the sea was almost identical to the mediterranean country I was born in. The mixture and diversity of cultures and the sense that one could reinvent oneself, shed layers, and explore one’s dreams, existed in this sphere where all seemed open and possible.

One day I picked up the yellow pages and looked up photography schools. I found the Art Center College of Design and when I walked into the students' gallery, I had that pounding of the heart feeling again. This is where I belong. The camera emboldened me. I could hide behind it and lose myself and my inhibitions. I became a photographer for my own selfish reasons. For the first time in my life I felt I had an identity and a mission.

I worked as an editorial photographer for some years, shooting portraits for magazines, movie studios, and album covers. I was good at it, but I had a sense that I still missed a unique way of expressing my interests. What I knew was significant to me was telling stories that interested me. I bought a video camera to make a couple documentaries, my documentary Women of the Georgian Hotel won an Emmy.

TGL: How did you decide to become a gallerist?

RS: I had to make a living, and one day, I had an opportunity to take on a temporary space in Santa Monica for a month. From the first week, I realized how much I enjoyed showing works by artists and photographers I admire. I found it so much easier to speak about works by other artists. That same pounding heart feeling I had felt before arose. Intuition is important in my life and it was intuition that drove me.

In the first weeks of this pop up, I met a person who shared my vision and we went on a journey together. He gave me the freedom to explore and discover photographers who were making images we both profoundly responded to: Eudora Welty, Alex Harris, Virginia Beahan, Laura Mcphee, Dorothea Lange, Camilo Jose Vergara, Evelyn Hofer, Adam Bartos, Sheron Rupp, Birney Imes, Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Graciela Iturbide, William Christenberry, William Egglleston, Stephen Shore, and so many other fine photographers whose intent is to illustrate and give meaning to the lands we live in and the lives of others. It was all about a telling of a visual story, be it historical, autobiographical, documentary, or landscape.

TGL: Can you explain your relationship with your artists and collectors?

RS: I have been so very fortunate to collaborate with collectors who have not only acquired artists' works in depth, but also support artists’ projects which may not have otherwise been realized. When I viewed Jo Ann Callis' vintage prints of her early color work from the 1970s, her “Hand in Honey” just knocked me over as I had never seen anything quite like it. All I could think of was, how do we take these images and give them their life back, make them look like what Jo Ann saw when she made them? I turned to one of the gallery's most treasured supporters and with the artist we found a way to make the most exquisite prints that beautifully reflected the images she made in the 1970s. The new prints, thanks to Jo Ann's supporter and collector became a part of the Tate Modern's Artist's Rooms program.

Our collectors have not only been supportive of our program, but they are also folks I personally wanted to get to know and have conversations with. Some of the best times at the gallery have been the gatherings of artists, curators, art aficionados, and collectors who love the stimulating experience of sharing ideas and thoughts.

TGL: How do you get inspired when you start working on an exhibition?

RS: I wish we had 100,000 square feet to give homage and space to all the artists whose works we're interested in. There are so many stories to tell! As our lives and the world around us constantly shift and change, so too does the gallery. Perception and beliefs about what constitutes a great exhibition vary and evolve, but it’s always the artists who are the inspiration and the reflection of what we hold to be significant and true.

I was eighteen years old when I bought my first photography book, Bruce Davidson's East 100th street. Many years later - when Rosegallery came to be - I wrote Bruce Davidson a fan letter, and one day he just showed up at the gallery! One of the most significant exhibitions we held was Time of Change, showing Davidson's civil rights photographs. I think about the image we used for the announcement: a poised policeman with a baton, waiting behind a tree whilst just off camera other policemen spray African American demonstrators with fire hoses. What rage and fear hide behind those holding the baton - these policemen could have been the nazi guards herding my grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins onto the trains. The same institutionalized power that makes men - mostly men - see those unlike them as the “other” and as less than human.

The experiences of my childhood and teenhood left imprints on me that I have grown to appreciate and respect. What became evident to me at a young age is that justice, kindness, and compassion are fundamental to my being. My way in the world is as conflicted, contradictory, and complex as anyone’s, but I do believe in “oneness.” I see the connection we all have with each other, no matter what nationality, religion, color, orientation, and class.

TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?

RS: The person I’d most want to have dinner with is Dorothea Lange, but she is gone. If I want to imagine dinner with someone living, it would be Teju Cole.

TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?

RS: If I can offer any advice, whether an artist or a gallerist, it is to connect oneself to the work, to who you are as an individual, to what excites you, speaks to you, and challenges you. What do you want to say? Honor your intuitive self, but still develop critical thinking. Artists need time, as does a gallery.

Question yourself and don't worry about changing course when what you're doing feels inauthentic. Pay no attention to what anyone else is doing or making unless it adds to your knowledge or practice. Every one of us has gone through waves of insecurity about what we are making and contemplating.

Focus on pushing your own boundaries. Failing is a good thing. We are all connected in our imperfection. There is value in an awareness of one's own efforts and journey, and an actualization of one's labor and application. It is personal and may not lead to prominence and stardom, but just the same, it’s gratifying to do the work.