Whether you’re strolling through Italian towns, sailing off the coast of Monaco or hunting foxes in the English countryside, the cosmopolitan themes are the epitome of high society and old money.
The late photographer spent five decades photographing aristocrats and socialites in all their glamour, while working for publications such as Town & Country, Harper’s Bazaar and Life magazine.
But according to the author of a new book on Aarons’ works, the photographer’s motive was not to celebrate or criticize the opulence in which he found himself. Journalistic curiosity about how the world’s most privileged people lived was what motivated him, said Shawn Waldron, who co-wrote “Slim Aarons: Style.”
“He was a reporter,” Waldron said by phone in New York. “You have to remember that a lot of these images were created for the task. He was sent somewhere to record what was happening in that particular place.”
Getty Images photography agency acquired the entire Aarons archive in 1997, several years after his retirement. Waldron, who also works as a curator for Getty Images, said only 6,000 of the roughly 750,000 images have been digitized so far.
At the time of the purchase, Aarons was “a little forgetful” and “a little unfavorable,” Waldron added. But now, some 15 years after his death, experts and the public are reviewing and reinterpreting the photographer’s vast body of work. With social media opening the door into the private lives of many celebrities today, his work offers a true and honest glimpse into a bygone era.
And while Aarons moved easily through society’s most exclusive circles, he maintained his objectivity and remained “sober,” Waldron said.
“Obviously he became friends with some of these people,” he added. “He photographed these individuals as they emerged in society, as well as their children decades later. These were long-term relationships… but at the same time, he always kept a professional distance, like a fly on the wall.”
“He was constantly walking around, but he always came back to his house on a small farm in Westchester County, New York.”
Style, not fashion
Aarons may have spent half a century surrounded by opulence, but his fixation on glamor may be rooted in experiences of poverty and war.
Although the photographer always claimed to be an orphan from New Hampshire, a documentary shot after his death revealed that he was descended from a Jewish immigrant family on New York City’s Lower East Side. With a father absent and his mother in a mental hospital, Aarons was “circulated among relatives,” Waldron said.
George Allen Aaron still used his birth name instead of his nickname “Slim”, in his early twenties, Aaron escaped poverty by enlisting in the military as a photographer. During World War II, he improved his craft not in polo games or snooker parties, but in military maneuvers, including the failed Allied attacks on Italy at the Battle of Monte Cassino. The photographer didn’t value his experiences, but they stuck with him, Waldron said.
“A lot of people who were photographers during the war, whether they were army photographers or war correspondents…just hung around. But Slim said, No, I’ve seen enough,” Waldron said, referring to Aaron’s famous response to the suggestion that he might as well document the Korean War. (“I only shoot a beach when there’s a blonde,” the photographer is said to have said).
This new book by Waldron is the latest in a collection of themed books about the photographer that have appeared in recent years. Focusing on the photographer’s interactions with the fashion world, his 180 photographs feature a variety of fashion icons, including Gianni Versace on Lake Como and model Veruschka von Lehndorff doing limbo in Acapulco.
The photos also show the evolution of luxury fashion over the decades, from the formality of the post-war years to the patterned ski jackets of the 90s. But while Aarons took some mainstream fashion photos early in his career, he escaped the spotlight. standards of the genre. He never used a stylist and often only carried a camera and tripod. He didn’t fit the fantasy of fashion photography, Waldron said.
“Fashion photography is about creating a story and a typology and portraying it… but Slim didn’t want that,” adds Waldron. “He was interested in the real person, not just what they were wearing, but what they were riding and where they would eat next. These are all parts of your personal style. He really identified with that.”
Here lies what Waldron described as the difference between fashion and style, between the ephemeral and the timeless. In fact, Aarons didn’t seem to care about his subjects’ wardrobes or current trends.
“I didn’t shoot fashion,” the photographer once said, “I photograph people in their clothes that became fashionable”.