The Greats: How Slim Aarons Captured the Inner Circle of High Society

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Before the idea of ‘celebrity’ took on a slightly unpleasant connotation, Slim Aarons helped the public gain a glimpse into the rarefied lifestyle of high society. Rising to prominence in the 1950s, he joined actors, dignitaries and royalty in striking locations around the world, where he helped pioneer the foundations of environmental portraiture.

Words by Hudson Brown

Photography by Slim Aarons

Slim Aarons spent his career capturing the rich and famous, but his start as a photographer began far away from the glamorous people and places that made him into a world-famous name. Enlisting in the United States Army at 18, Slim initially worked on the lowest rung of the West Point Military Academy’s photography department. As a hydro dipper, he had the monotonous role of sliding prints in and out of darkroom chemicals before eventually gaining enough trust to pick up the camera and capture training manoeuvres. 

When the United States entered WWII in 1941, Slim was sent overseas to work with the military publication – Yank. For the next three years, he used a handheld Leica to cover devastating conflicts across North Africa and Europe, with much of his time spent alongside acclaimed photojournalists like George Silk and Carl Mydans. While Slim would later become known for his vivid images of high society, this period of his life was punctuated by some of Europe’s bloodiest conflicts, including the Battle of Monte Cassino and the Battle of Anzio. 

Cover image for Yank, shot by Slim Aarons.

After Slim was wounded, he travelled to Rome and saw the city captured by Allied forces. As jubilant crowds filled the streets, he was in position to capture a soldier holding a baby above Mussolini Square and its cheering throng – an image that became Yank’s July 1944 cover photo. But as WWII came to a close, Slim returned home to pursue a vastly different subject matter as he sought out California’s seductive lifestyle.

“I’d wandered through enough concentration camps and bombed-out villages. I’d slept in the mud and been shot at,” said Aarons. “I owed myself some easy, luxurious living. I wanted to be on the sunny side of the street.”

Seeking Out the Bright Lights

Finding work as a freelancer for luxury magazines like Holiday and Life, Slim managed to embed himself into the world’s elite circles from the 1950s onwards. By forming trusting relationships with a variety of high-ranking members of the glitterati, including Humphrey Bogart, Truman Capote and Tony Curtis, he discovered that his charm and easygoing nature opened plenty of lavish doors for him to slide through. As Slim explained in 2002: “They would invite me to one of their parties because they knew I wouldn’t hurt them. I was one of them.”

But this was only the beginning of his jet-setting lifestyle as he was invited around the globe to capture some of society’s wealthiest people having the time of their lives. Long before the rise of reality television and social media, glossy magazines were the only place people could keep up with their favourite stars. Despite many of these personalities wanting to avoid the average photographer, Slim was welcomed into their lives with open arms. 

I wanted to be on the sunny side of the street.”

Slim’s affable reputation was remarked upon by many of his famous subjects over the years, as he developed personal relationships with the likes of Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart. Rather than being seen as a photojournalist looking to impede, he was considered just another friend with a camera. This approach was reflected in his ability to work with a minimal amount of photographic gear to ensure his subjects felt comfortable in his presence.

Whether he was joining a skiing trip in Switzerland or soaking up a luxury oceanfront mansion in Palm Beach, Slim was known to carry a single stainless steel briefcase. Inside there was a single Leica or Nikon camera, his favourite lenses, a light metre and just enough Kodachrome film for the shoot. Meanwhile, he only employed a solitary assistant so that his subjects never felt like they were being fussed over. 

Despite Slim’s carefully refined approach and amicable nature, he was also an exceptional photographer. In fact, he’s credited with developing the now commonplace style of environmental portraiture.

Developing the Environmental Portrait

Despite the moneyed nature of Slim’s imagery, he simply wanted to focus on his subjects and their extraordinary lifestyles. This vision extended to the appearance of the people in his photographs. He never brought along makeup artists, avoided lighting rigs and was known to ask his subjects to dress as they usually would. As Slim’s famous quote goes, all he wanted to do was capture “attractive people in attractive places doing attractive things.”

With many of Slim’s most enduring images taken on assignment, his work with Holiday and its celebrated editor Frank Zachary played an especially important role in his photographic career. Working for the publication alongside a remarkable team of photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and Arnold Newman, Slim managed to capture his lauded – and often intensely private – subjects where they felt most comfortable.

Slim’s work is hugely admired because it provides a rare, but deeply personal glimpse into high society. In part, his work was so successful because it didn’t mock or leer at the absurd wealth that was on display. Although he was criticised by some for his singular focus on the rich, he saw himself as a photojournalist who was documenting a quickly fading era in the most earnest way that he could.

“I’m not a master photographer. I’m a journalist with a camera,” described Aarons. “People forget. It isn’t about one photograph like all magazines publish today. We were storytellers.”

“I’m not a master photographer. I’m a journalist with a camera.”

A Wonderful Time

When Zachary joined Town & Country as editor in 1972, Slim followed as he continued his efforts to photograph the rich and famous. During this time, he decided to arrange his work into a series of photobooks, including A Wonderful Time: An Intimate Portrait of the Good Life. Featuring images captured across three decades, the book showcased a who’s who of celebrities alongside portraits of prominent dynasties, including the Fords, the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers. 

Nowadays, this long out-of-print book is hugely sought-after, fetching enormous prices at auctions whenever one becomes available. But when A Wonderful Time was published in 1974, society’s admiration for celebrity culture was dwindling as President Nixon’s resignation and other high-profile controversies damaged the world of stardom. Although Slim remained active throughout the 1980s, releasing two more acclaimed photo books – Once Upon a Time and A Place in the Sun – he recognised how public opinion was rapidly changing regarding his subject matter. 

Having retired a few years earlier to a quiet life on a farm in Katonah, New York, Aarons sold his entire catalogue in 1997 to Mark Getty, co-founder of Getty Images, for what he elegantly described as ‘fuck you’ money. With Slim having amassed a vast collection of images depicting the world’s famous that almost no other photographer has achieved, his incredible ability to gain access and trust from his subjects makes him an artist worth celebrating. 

As Frank Zachary wrote: “Slim has documented the life of the rich, the privileged and the leisured for fifty years. Without animus or adulation, he has mirrored the changing countenance of society – facelifts and all.” 

How to Shoot Environmental Portraits like Slim Aarons

BUILD STRONG RELATIONSHIPS

There’s no doubt that Slim’s charisma massively benefited his career. His most famous image, Four Kings of Hollywood, featuring a laid-back Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart occurred when Slim beguiled them with stories about his failed acting screen tests. When shooting with your subjects, find out what makes them tick and see if you can discover common ground. This positive relationship might just improve your shots.

KEEP IT SIMPLE

Having great gear to shoot with is never a bad thing, but you don’t have to overcomplicate your ideas. Slim recognised how keeping things simple helped his eminent subjects feel most at ease in front of the camera. With this in mind, he often avoided making a fuss about hair, makeup and clothing. “People always ask me – why is everyone always so happy in your pictures?” recalled Slim. “I say because they like me!” 

STEP BACK

Despite the manicured locations where Slim created his portraits, his images often appear direct and natural. This is because he rarely got too close to his subjects, choosing to step back and capture the entire scene. As viewers get to soak up the landscape and personal items surrounding the subject, this offers a wonderfully detailed glimpse into their lives.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

Although many of Slim’s images have a certain nonchalant quality to them, he didn’t simply turn up and start shooting. Like many other photographers who produce outstanding environmental portraits, he made sure to have a great understanding of the subject and location before arriving. “He would go a day early and do his research,” explained Slim’s daughter, Mary. “If it was a shoot at Piazza San Marco, he would find out when the pigeons got fed. He didn’t have stylists or lighting people – he did his own research.”

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Hudson Brown

Hudson Brown is a Melbourne-based freelance writer when he's not travelling the globe. His words have been featured in the likes of SBS Food, Treadlie Magazine and Paper Sea Quarterly, while he was previously the editorial assistant for small footprint living publication Assemble Papers. He is also a regular contributor to Concrete Playground where he covers the latest art, culture and gastronomic happenings around town.

2021-06-17T23:39:50+00:00Categories: Photography|Tags: , |