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Jules Aarons, 87, renowned documentary photographer

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  November 25, 2008 03:17 PM

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West End Paperbacks
West End Paperbacks 1947-1953 by Jules Aarons
Silver gelatin print, courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print Dept.

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff

Jules Aarons, a Boston University physicist who was an internationally known expert in the study of radio-wave propagation and an acclaimed photographer whose work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, New York's Museum of Modern Art, and Paris's Bibliotheque Nationale, died last week at his home in Newton after battling congestive heart failure. He was 87.

Dr. Aarons worked for many years as a senior scientist at the Air Force Geophysics Research Laboratory at Hanscom Field in Bedford. He joined the faculty at Boston University in 1981, the year he retired from the geophysics laboratory, and helped establish Boston University's Center for Space Physics in 1987.

"He was an extremely warm and unpretentious person,'' said Michael Mendillo, a Boston University astronomy professor who had coffee and pastries on Friday with Dr. Aarons at his home before he died during an afternoon nap. "He knew he was an accomplished person, but he never talked about himself.''

A pioneer in space physics, Dr. Aarons contributed to advances in satellite and global positioning technology. "Essentially, I tried to understand the effects of the earth's atmosphere on radio waves,'' he said once, describing his scientific work.

From 1980 to 1983, he was chairman of the International Radio Science Union's Commission on Ionospheric Radio Wave Propagation.

According to the National Science Foundation's Sunanda Basu, Dr. Aarons "was a pioneer in beacon satellite studies of the ionosphere.'' His name, Basu said, "has now become synonymous with the field of ionospheric scintillations.''

Dr. Aarons's photographs are notable for their liveliness, informality, and emotional warmth. He excelled at street photography: casual documentary images of urban life. "My basic approach to street portraits was to avoid intruding on the scene,'' he said. He began taking photographs while an undergraduate at the City College of New York.

The Boston Public Library, whose print department has an extensive collection of his photographs, held a one-man show of his work in 1999, "Into the Streets.'' Dr. Aarons also had one-man shows at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1949; the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, both 1951; the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., 1958; and the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, 1951 and 2003.

"I knew that the dynamics of people whose social relationships involved their neighbors and the streets could be a source of creativity,'' Dr. Aarons said.

He gravitated to Boston's old West End, before urban renewal demolished much of the neighborhood, and then to the North End. He visited with his camera, a double-lens Rolleiflex, on late afternoons and weekends.

"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.''

Among photographers who influenced him were Sid Grossman, with whom he briefly studied, Lisette Model, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Dr. Aarons was born in the Bronx, N.Y. His father worked in the garment industry. After graduating from the City College of New York in 1942, he served in the Army Signal Corps, where he became interested in electronics.

After the war, he went to work at Hanscom and earned a master's degree in physics from Boston University in 1949. He went to Paris on a Fulbright grant in 1953 and earned his doctorate at the University of Paris.

Dr. Aarons used his time in France to photograph and study. He would continue to use his scientific career to contribute to his photography. Going to professional conferences, he made a point of bringing along his camera.

Thus his work includes images taken in Western Europe, India, Japan, South America, Israel, and Puerto Rico.

Dr. Aarons printed his own photographs. His eyes developed an intolerance to darkroom chemicals, which caused him to abandon photography in 1981.

One of his sons, Philip E. of New York, said in an interview yesterday that Dr. Aarons struck a perfect balance among his devotions to science, photography, and family.

"He was a tremendously loving father and grandfather,'' Philip said.

Dr. Aarons was predeceased by his wife, Jeanette (Lampert), whom he married in 1944.

In addition to his son, Philip, Dr. Aarons leaves another son, Herbert Gene of Salinas, Calif., and three grandchildren.

Burial was in Sharon Memorial Park in Sharon.

Globe reporter James Vaznis and Globe correspondent Emily Canal contributed to this obituary.

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