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A Scientific Pioneer — and a Street Photographer

Celebrating space researcher Jules Aarons for something down to earth

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Watch the slide show above to see examples of the enduring photo legacy of Jules Aarons.

Jules Aarons, renowned for pioneering radio-beacon studies of the ionosphere, left another visual legacy: street-scene photography that evoked an era.

Aarons (GRS’49), a College of Arts & Sciences research professor emeritus of astronomy and space physics, died last November at age 87. His images endure, as does his example of a creative, multifaceted life.

“Aarons’ dual career is even more incredible when you consider that within space science he made a dual contribution — important discoveries in ionosphere physics, which had applications for national defense, and in fundamental research,” says longtime colleague and friend Michael Mendillo (GRS’68,’71), a CAS professor of astronomy.

But science did not satisfy his creative impulse, Aarons told the B.U. Bridge, the University’s weekly newspaper, in 2001. In the 1940s, he began shooting scenes of everyday life on the streets of Boston’s North End and West End (now demolished) and later in other cities around the world.

His photographs of groups and individuals, which he developed and printed, were made with a twin-lens Rolleiflex with a waist-level viewfinder, allowing him to capture scenes without his subjects’ being aware.

“I always was interested in unguarded moments,” Aarons told the Bridge. “I think that spirit is in my photos.”

His work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Bibliotheque nationale and Bibliotheque historique, both in Paris, the Boston Public Library, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and elsewhere. The most recent of Aarons’ six books of photographs and essays is Public Spaces/Public Moments: The Photographs of Jules Aarons (Gallery Kayafas, 2006).

“To be successful at an art you have to be devoted,” he told the Bridge, “and I always took photos with a purpose. If I was traveling and I could get a few hours for myself, I wasn’t going to do shopping or go to a museum. I just went out to photograph.”

Natalie Jacobson McCracken can be reached at nmccrack@bu.edu. Kimberly Cornuelle can be reached at kcornuel@bu.edu.

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