Photography / Features

Documenting Dandies: An Interview with Rose Callahan

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Rose Callahan is a curator of character. From Florence to Johannesburg, London to Tokyo, she has captured photographs of some of the most dapper gentlemen and rakish beaus one could hope to encounter. Beginning as a blog dedicated to the resurging dandy personality, her project has since evolved into two impressive volumes: I Am Dandy: The Return of the Elegant Gentleman (Gestalten, 2013) and We Are Dandy: The Elegant Gentleman Around the World (Gestalten, 2017). In each, portraits of her subjects at home or in their favorite haunts are complemented by short bios written by her witty co-author, Nathaniel “Natty” Adams. Callahan’s striking photographs capture the reader’s attention, while Adams’s indulgent profiles satiate curiosity.

Above Photograph by Rose Callahan, from We are Dandy © Gestalten 2016

In addition to her work with dandies, Callahan is the photographer for the Metropolitan Opera House’s “Last Night at the Met,” a blog that documents the eccentric attendees of the storied venue. Her work has been featured in numerous publications including L’Uomo Vogue, Esquire, and the Wall Street Journal. A selection of Callahan’s dandy portraits is currently included in the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s traveling exhibition: Dandy Lion: (Re)Articulating Black Masculine Identity.

Photography by Rose Callahan, from We are Dandy © Gestalten 2016

Cory Rice: One of the first questions that comes to mind when looking through your work is how were you able to track down so many interesting subjects?

Rose Callahan: For the first book, I was focused on New York, London, and Paris. It was a lot of word of mouth. I would research and find certain people who had a reputation for being dandies. By the time I got around to the second book, social media became a big help. A lot of the guys I met in Africa I connected with using Instagram or Facebook. But there were still some people that I never would have met if I hadn’t been there.

CR: Social media seems to be fueling a strong desire to assert individuality.

RC: I think a big trend right now is personal style. There is no one style or over-arching theme. What is incredible to me is that dandies exist at the same time that you see people walking around in sweatpants and pajamas.

Photography by Rose Callahan, from We are Dandy © Gestalten 2016

CR: When did the dandy come back into style?

RC: In the mid-2000s, a lot of blogs about menswear popped up that sparked interest in men’s fashion. But also in the 1980s there was a rediscovery of dressing among men, too—it is something that has happened repeatedly throughout history. The original dandies were in the late 18th or early 19th Century. Later, you had someone like Oscar Wilde looking back at them. Then, in the 1960s, you had the Peacock Revolution, which was looking back at dandies, too. It is a sensibility and an expression that inspires a lot of people.

CR: When I shared your work with some of my colleagues, they longed for the days of better dressing. It seems like a fine line is being danced between the timeless and the antiquated.

RC: The people who are into this in one respect are interested in the past, but a lot of them are very interested in bringing it up to date and adding their own flare to it. I think they are interested in looking back, because now it stands out. I try to imagine, if I was walking down the street in 1930, if I would see people dressing anachronistically. I think most of the differences would divide down class lines.

Photography by Rose Callahan, from We are Dandy © Gestalten 2016

CR: Baudelaire described the dandy as a man “nurtured in luxury… with no profession other than elegance.” Wealth appears to be a pre-requisite to realize many of these looks.

RC: I don’t think it is entirely about money. I can think of examples of all kinds of people I photographed who aren’t wealthy. What it takes if you don’t have money is a good eye, and time to spend finding the things you want to wear. When we went to South Africa, the idea that you don’t have to have money to have style and look good was crystal clear. Almost all the guys I photographed lived in townships, which are not luxury residences by any stretch. These were not people with much money, but they were very excited that they could have style while walking down the street. One of the quotes in the book that I love came from Loux “the Vintage Guru” in Namibia who said, “You can sleep in a shack, you can sleep under a bridge—but you can still look smart.”

CR: Street style has become extremely popular among fashion bloggers and photographers in the age of the Internet. How do you see your work in relation to that genre?

RC: When I first started the project, I would shoot people on the street. As I started to get more serious about it, I looked around and I thought about the project, and I realized I wasn’t really interested in that style. I have seen a lot of street style work that is really great—but I didn’t want to do that for my project. I was more into going to a person’s environment, which I found more interesting and fun.

Photography by Rose Callahan, from We are Dandy © Gestalten 2016

CR: It gives a more complete portrait of the person.

RC: I think you get more intimate with somebody; it’s more special because I am getting access to their space and we form more of a relationship. Also, I wasn’t really interested in fashion. I love style and fashion, but I’m not interested in making these as fashion photographs the way that a street-style photographer would.

CR: Natty’s character profiles add even more depth to the images. How did you two end up working together?

RC: I was doing my blog while Natty was studying dandyism in journalism school. He had gotten a grant for a book proposal and had gone to the Congo and other places in Europe, where he met some of the same people I had photographed. When he came back to New York he found me and got in touch, and we became friends. It was great serendipity. He had the writing, and I had the photographs.

Photography by Rose Callahan, courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera House

CR: “Last Night at the Met” seems like a fitting gig for someone accustomed to shooting dandies.

RC: That project started as an advertising job through one of the agencies that worked with the Met. I’ve been doing it for four seasons now—I shoot one show per production, usually opening night. It started as a campaign to inspire people who wonder, “What do I wear?” The Met doesn’t have a dress code, and people are way more relaxed today, so you can’t really tell them they have to dress up, you have to coax them a little.

Photography by Rose Callahan, courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera House

CR: What kind of setup are you working with?

RC: I switch between a 35mm lens, 40mm pancake, and 50mm with a Q Flash. There are big, rounded walls at the Met, and I just bounce it. I’ve shot everything that way. I don’t like to over-light things. I like to keep it minimal.

Photography by Rose Callahan, courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera House

CR: What’s next?

RC: I definitely want to photograph women again! Joking aside, I have seen how working on a long-term passion project can turn into something very meaningful—monetarily and artistically. So, that encourages me to work in this way, while still doing my commercial work that has always been a balance of portraits, lifestyle, and fashion. I have several book proposals in the works, including one for my Bartender Style series, which explores style and character behind the bar. Also, my husband, Kelly Desmond Bray, filmed all of the interviews during the We are Dandy book adventure, so we are developing that into a film.

Photograph by Cory Rice

To see more of Rose Callahan’s work, visit her website, her dandy portrait blog, and Last Night at the Met. You can also follow her on Instagram.

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