Slim Aarons, photographer who captures the game of high society

Written Oscar Holland, CNN

Slim Aarons has built a career documenting the lives of the rich and beautiful.

Working for publications such as Town & Country, Harper’s Bazaar and Life magazine, the late photographer spent five decades capturing overtly glamorous images of aristocrats and socialites. Lounging in Italian villas, boating off the coast of Monaco, or hunting foxes in the English countryside, his itinerant heroes epitomized high society and old money.

But, according to the author of the new book in Aaron’s work, the photographer’s motive was neither to celebrate nor criticize the wealth he encountered. He was driven by a journalistic curiosity about how the world’s most privileged people live, said Sean Waldron, co-author of Slim Aarons: Style.

“He was a reporter,” Waldron said by phone from New York. “You have to think that a lot of these pictures were created on assignment. He was sent somewhere to record what was happening in that particular place.”

Heiress Noni Phipps with friends in Biarritz, France, 1960 Credit: Slim Aarons/Getty Images

Photo agency Getty Images acquired Aarons’ entire archive in 1997, a few years after he retired. Waldron, who also works as a Getty curator, said only 6,000 of the roughly 750,000 images have been digitized so far.

At the time of the purchase, Aarons was “sort of forgotten” and “a little out of favor,” Waldron added. But now, some 15 years after his death, experts and audiences are revisiting and rethinking a huge amount of the photographer’s work. With social media giving today’s jet-setters complete control over how their personal lives are portrayed, his work offers a refreshingly candid look at a bygone era.

And while Aarons moved with ease in the most exclusive circles of society, he retained his objectivity and remained “very down to earth,” Waldron said.

“Obviously he got close to some of those people,” he added. “He photographed people as they entered society and then photographed their children decades later. It’s a long term relationship… but he was also very (pretty much) a fly on the wall and always maintained that professional distance.

“He was constantly moving from place to place, but he always returned home to his small farmhouse in Westchester County, New York.”

Olivier Coquelin, who opened the first American disco, and his wife, Hawaiian singer and actress Lahaina Kameha.

Olivier Coquelin, who opened the first American disco, and his wife, Hawaiian singer and actress Lahaina Kameha. Credit: Slim Aarons/Getty Images

Style, not fashion

Aarons may have spent half a century surrounded by abundance, but his obsession with glamor may have been based on experiences of poverty and war.

Although the photographer has always claimed to be an orphan from New Hampshire, the documentary was made after his death. disclosed that he came from a Jewish immigrant family on the Lower East Side of New York. According to Waldron, due to the absence of his father and his mother at the mental hospital, Aarons “was transferred between family members”.

Still using his birth name George Allen Aarons rather than his later nickname Slim, he escaped poverty by joining the army as a photographer at the age of 20. While serving in World War II, he honed his skills not at polo matches or pool parties, but at military maneuvers, including the ill-fated Allied attacks on Italy at the Battle of Monte Cassino. The photographer later “enlightened” his experiences, but they stayed with him, Waldron said.

“A lot of people who were war photographers, either army photographers or war correspondents… just stuck with it. And Slim said, “No, I’ve seen enough,” Waldron said, referring to the famous response to the suggestion that he could also document the Korean War. (“I will make a beach only if there is a blonde on it,” photographer reportedly said.)
Kleenex heir Jim Kimberley (far left, in orange) talking to friends on the shores of Lake Worth, Florida, 1968.

Kleenex heir Jim Kimberley (far left, in orange) talking to friends on the shores of Lake Worth, Florida, 1968. Credit: Slim Aarons/Getty Images

Waldron’s new title is the latest in series thematic books about the photographer published in recent years. The 180 shots of the photographer’s interactions with the fashion world feature a host of style icons, including Gianni Versace on Lake Como and model Veruschka von Lendorf in limbo in Acapulco.

The photographs also depict the evolution of luxury fashion over the decades, from the formality of the post-war years to the patterned ski jackets of the 1990s. But while Aarons did some casual fashion shoots early in his career, he eschewed the norms of the genre. Never having a stylist and often carrying only a camera and a tripod, Waldron said he did not identify with the fantasy associated with fashion photography.

“Fashion photography is all about creating story and typology and acting them out…but Slim didn’t want to do that,” Waldron said. “He was interested in real people – not only what they were wearing, but also what they were driving, where they went to have dinner after that. It’s about all the different parts that create a personal style. This is what he was really connected with. “

This is what Waldron called the difference between fashion and style, between the transient and the eternal. Indeed, Aarons did not seem to care about the wardrobes of his subjects or the trends of the day.

“I didn’t do fashion,” the photographer once said. “I made people in their clothes that became fashionable.”

Slim Aarons: style”, written by Sean Waldron and Kate Betts and published by Abrams Books, is available now.

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