What Did Slim Aarons Really Think of the Opulent World He Photographed?
The iconic photographer's work at once celebrated and condemned the high society it documented
In front of a pool of crystalline, turquoise water, a blonde woman stands on a bright white deck grasping the hand of a small child. In the background there’s a Grecian-style temple bearing a statue of the goddess Artemis. The woman is lauded socialite C.Z. Guest, and the home is Villa Artemis in Palm Beach. The year is 1955, and the photograph is by Slim Aarons.
George Allen “Slim” Aarons rose to prominence in the American boom years of the 1950s, when he quickly became renowned for photographing global elites: heirs and heiresses, princes and princesses, actors and actresses, jet-setters extraordinaire. At the time, with the strong post-war economy of the era, people were fascinated by how “the other half lives,” and Aarons became the one to show them the world’s most exclusive — in more than one sense of the word — locales. With a famed charisma, he became not just a photographer but an invited guest into these lives and made a living photographing their splendor: lounging poolside in Antibes, apres-ski in Gstaadt, on the patio in Palm Springs.
Aarons had turned to such photography initially by accident. He began his career when photojournalism was still a new phenomenon, and while serving in World War II shot for the weekly Army magazine called Yank. He saw concentration camps and combat — in Italy at the Battle of Anzio, where he was subsequently injured and received a Purple Heart (“I gave it to a blonde I knew after the war. She said she liked the color,” he told Vanity Fair in 2003) — but he would be done shooting atrocities after that. After the war and Yank, he began shooting for Life. When the magazine wanted him to shoot the Korean War, he declined, saying, “I’ll only do a beach if it has a blonde on it.” His work at Life and then luxury publications like Town and Country, Harper’s Bazaar and the now-defunct Holiday were as far from combat as one could get.
And yet, as much as Aarons was in the world, he was not of it, nor did he have any aspirations to be a part of it. Rather, for him, it was just a job. “His brushing shoulders with the rich and famous did not affect how he lived his life or his tastes,” Aarons’s former assistant Laura Hawk told The Guardian in 2016. “He had absolutely no desire to hang out with his subjects at the end of the day and he did not expect invitations to the yacht or the exclusive club.” But because of the nature of his work, a symbiotic relationship developed between Aarons and the jet setting coterie: they gave access, he made a living taking their pictures. It was not a relationship Aarons took lightly, though. He was very protective of the images and the outtakes, and sought only to make the best pictures he could. They in turn trusted him and welcomed him into these once-untouchable spheres, and his ability to make a living continued. And at the end of the trip, he was able to go home to his farmhouse in Bedford, New York, where he preferred to be anyway.
Likely with this culture of exclusivity in mind, Aarons did not reveal he was Jewish during his lifetime. Only after his death did it come to light, to the surprise of his immediate family (he had merely described himself as an orphan before that). Aarons had grown up speaking Yiddish in a poor family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. As a young boy, his mother was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and he bounced around from family to family. He had no relationship with his father and his brother later committed suicide. In a culture often made of “restricted” access — where “restricted” meant only white gentiles were allowed — Aarons likely knew he would never be invited in if people knew his real past. While there’s great privilege involved in being able to “pass,” was it a strategy of survival to avoid discrimination, an act of self-reinvention, or a result of embarrassment? Regardless, it must have greatly amused Aarons to have such individuals clamoring to have him take their picture and to have association with him, a Jewish person, marked as a social achievement. No wonder it wasn’t a world he aspired to: he knew how many of them could be fake.
And yet, with all of this in mind, how do we look at Aarons’s work in 2020, in a time of vast social upheaval? A good place to start is perhaps with the release of Aarons’s first collection of images, A Wonderful Time: An Intimate Portrait of the Good Life, in 1974. It was the year the Watergate scandal came to a head with Nixon’s resignation, not to mention the time of the Cold War, an ongoing oil crisis, high inflation, a recession, labor strikes and the largest banking failure in the history of the U.S. (Franklin National Bank). It was also a time of civil rights achievements, like the Equal Educational Opportunities Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, among many others. In other words, it was a time of great social and political change.
It was not necessarily a time in which people wanted to spend $35 ($182.02 in today’s money) on a book of images depicting a life that perhaps felt impossibly out of reach. It was more a year of gritty realism and disaster movies, something people could latch onto that would resonate with their current experiences. In an article titled “How To Make Yourself Poorer,” for The New York Times’s “Books of the Times” section, writer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt referred to A Wonderful Time as a “repellent” book “that manages to make even T.S. Eliot look decadent.” The book only sold 12,000 copies initially, with another 8,000 in a Book of the Month Club. It was not, shall we say, Aarons’s time.
It wouldn’t be his time for over 20 years, until Getty Images bought his collection for what Aarons would only call “fuck you money” in 1997. Images of his began to circulate wildly and led to a level of success he had not yet known in his lifetime to that point — in Fritz Mitchell’s 2016 documentary Slim Aarons: The High Life, his wife remembers them regularly facing financial trouble. His books, which at one point popped up in thrift shops and vintage stores for $2 a piece, go for over $4,000 today. He became known as a design guru, and his images came to represent a beloved, nostalgic, escapist iconography.
In the world style photography, Aarons’s images of elegant design, masterful composition and haute couture, always captured in lurid, saturated colors, have been wildly influential, cited by everyone from Michael Kors to Anna Sui to Lenny Kravitz as inspiration. Prep-inspired fashion line Rowing Blazers recently used images from Aarons in a new capsule streetwear collection, Swedish company Maje has made Aarons’s images the center of their summer 2020 capsule, and designers Tom Ford and Albino Teodoro were also inspired by the photographer for their 2020 collections.
When Rowing Blazers released their collection in March of this year, the company wrote:
“… what’s most arresting about Aarons’ work is not his access to these rarified realms or the sense of privileged leisure he documents (and at which some, in 2020, might bristle). It’s the idealized, self-acknowledged fantasy of it all: Slim was, as one critic wrote, an ‘insider among insiders.’ His work makes the world look far more beautiful than it ever really was, and far more perfect than it could ever really be, even for his glamorous subjects.”
Knowing Aarons’s background, it’s a statement that has weight. Slim’s own life was also more perfect than it could ever really be: he had invented himself as much as he invented scenes in the worlds he photographed. For Rowing Blazers founder and creative director Jack Carlson, there is a sense of irreverence not just to Aarons’s work, but to the placement of it on streetwear (Aarons famously refused to shoot T-shirts, jeans and sneakers). “The attitude with which he seems to have worked is also something I think is very cool and on brand for us,” Carlson says. There is a sense of sending up the culture as much as there is one of documenting it.
Aarons’s own life supports this. In Slim Aarons: The High Life, there’s a story Laura Hawk tells of being at dinner with Aarons, when the photographer called out to Kimberly-Clark scion Jim Kimberly, “Ah! The Kleenex and Kotex guy!” She remembers Kimberly being notably disturbed by it and trying to keep his cool, while Aarons very much enjoyed the experience. It wasn’t something he did very often, but there were other examples: he once pointed out John D. Rockefeller III’s crabgrass and told a shipping magnate to “take a hike” after he asked for cab fare. “He loved to chide and poke at people,” Hawk says in the film. “Maybe that was a way he pulled rank.”
Similarly, Lee Wells, of the art curatorial platform and agency International Fine Arts Consortium, sees Aarons’s work as a counterbalance: “There’s this craziness that he and all these others experienced and documented, but then there’s this other side, this kind of dreamy, utopic side that did go on,” he says. In a recent New York Times article, Aarons’s same image of C.Z. Guest by the pool starts an article chastising the rich for building pools during the pandemic. “Many of [Aarons’s images] were taken during the 1960s and ’70s, when America was on fire and ripped apart, the images suggesting insulation as much as oasis — the defense against a broad range of new, discomfiting realities,” Ginia Bellafante writes.
I begin to wonder if maybe that was the point.
By showing us these dreamy utopias even in times of strife across the country (Aarons worked from the 1950s to the 1990s) was the famously jaded shutterbug, who was deeply defined by his time in the war and held in his memory a childhood of strife, actually issuing a commentary on the way high society isolated itself from the world in visions of grandeur? “He emerged from the second world war both disillusioned and determined and I really believe his motivations came from there,” Hawk said. Aarons didn’t even count his celebrity/society work among his best images; this was instead a title he bestowed on work he made during the war, of Hitler’s bunker covered in graffiti and a young boy whose body was broken by battle.
Now, in a year not unlike 1974, with celebrities marooned in their compounds and civil rights protests filling the evening news, should we look at Aarons’s work as a condemnation or a celebration of the lives it depicted? Perhaps the truth lies in an inscription Aarons made in A Wonderful Time to protege Jonathan Becker:
Remember, it’s all bullshit.
Best as always,