Slim Aarons, the photographer who portrayed high society in action

Alexandra Ferguson

(CNN) – Slim Aarons built a career documenting the lives of the rich and beautiful.

The late photographer spent five decades photographing aristocrats and members of high society in all their glamor, working for publications such as Town & Country, Harper’s Bazaar and Life magazine. Whether lounging in Italian villas, cruising the Monaco coast, or hunting foxes in the English countryside, his globetrotting subjects epitomized high society… and old money.

But according to the author of a new book on Aarons’ work, the photographer’s motive was neither to celebrate nor criticize the opulence he found. What drove him was journalistic curiosity about how the world’s most privileged people lived, said Shawn Waldron, co-author of “Slim Aarons: Style.”

“He was a reporter,” Waldron said by phone from New York. “You have to think that many of these photos are created to order. They sent him somewhere to record what was happening in that specific place. “

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

The Getty Images photo agency acquired the entire Aarons archive in 1997, several years after his retirement. Waldron, who also works as Getty’s curator, said only 6,000 of the roughly 750,000 images have been digitized so far.

At the time of purchase, Aarons was “a little bit forgotten” and “a little bit out of use,” Waldron added. But now, some 15 years after his death, experts and the public are reviewing and reinterpreting the photographer’s vast work. At a time when social media allows jet-setters to closely control the portrayal of their private lives, his work offers a refreshing and candid glimpse into a bygone era.

1 of 11 | High-level individuals like American lawyer and businessman Alexander Cochrane Cushing enjoy a cocktail atop KT-22 Peak in Squaw Valley, California, in 1961. Check out the gallery for more of Slim’s high-society images Aarons and published in the new book “Slim Aarons: Style”. Credit: Slim Aarons / Getty Images 2 of 11 | Heiress Nonie Phipps pictured with friends in Biarritz, France, in 1960. Credit: Slim Aarons / Getty Images 3 of 11 | Polo champion Paul Butler with his family in Palm Beach, 1981. Credit: Slim Aarons / Getty Images 4 of 11 | Fashion designer Dimitris Kritsas presents his latest collection in a temple in Cape Sounion, Greece, in 1961. Credit: Slim Aarons / Getty Images 5 of 11 | Olivier Coquelin, who opened America’s first nightclub, and his wife, Hawaiian singer and actress Lahaina Kameha. Credit: Slim Aarons / Getty Images 6 of 11 | Kleenex heir Jim Kimberly (far left in orange) talks to friends on the shores of Lake Worth, Florida, in 1968. Credit: Slim Aarons / Getty Images 7 of 11 | American fashion designer James Galanos with model Dovima in his New York atelier in 1960. Credit: Slim Aarons / Getty Images 8 of 11 | Mr. Clark, head of pattern cutting for luxury London shirtmaker Turnbull & Asser, in 1955. Credit: Slim Aarons / Getty Images 9 of 11 | Singer Marianne Faithfull, writer Desmond Guinness and Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger attend a party at Castletown House, Ireland. Credit: Slim Aarons / Getty Images 10 of 11 | A party at the world famous Hollywood restaurant, Romanoff’s, where Aarons used to rub shoulders with the stars of his day. Credit: Slim Aarons / Getty Images 11 of 11 | “Slim Aarons: Style,” written by Shawn Waldron and Kate Betts, and published by Abrams Books, is out now. Credit: Slim Aarons / Getty Images

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And while Aarons moved easily through the more exclusive circles of society, he retained his objectivity and was “down to earth,” says Waldron.

“Obviously, he became friends with some of these people,” he added. “He photographed the subjects as they rose through society and then photographed their children decades later. It’s about long-term relationships… but he was also a fly on the wall and always maintained that professional distance. “

“He was constantly going from place to place, but always coming home to his little farm in Westchester County, New York.”

Olivier Coquelin, who opened America’s first nightclub, 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 wealth, 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 produced after his death revealed that he came from an immigrant Jewish family on New York’s Lower East Side. With a father absent and his mother admitted to a psychiatric hospital, Aarons “passed between family members,” Waldron said.

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Still using his birth name, George Allen Aarons, instead of his later nickname, Slim, he escaped poverty by joining the military as a photographer at age 20.

During World War II, he perfected his art not in polo matches or pool parties, but in military maneuvers, including the ill-fated Allied assaults on Italy at the Battle of Montecassino. The photographer “didn’t care” about his experiences, but they stuck with him, Waldron said.

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“A lot of people who were photographers in the war, be they army photographers or war correspondents… they just stuck with it. And Slim said, ‘No, I’ve seen enough,’ ”Waldron said, referring to Aarons’ famous response to the suggestion that he also document the Korean War. (“I’ll only shoot a beach if there’s a blonde on it,” the photographer supposedly said).

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

Waldron’s new title is the latest in a series of thematic books on the photographer, published in recent years. Focusing on the photographer’s interactions with the world of fashion, his 180 photographs show a series of style icons, such as Gianni Versace on Lake Como and model Veruschka von Lehndorff playing limbo in Acapulco.

The photos also trace the evolution of luxury fashion over the decades, from the formality of the postwar years to the patterned ski jackets of the 1990s. However, although Aarons did do some mainstream fashion shoots early on of her career, she avoided gender norms. He never used a stylist, and often wore little more than a camera and tripod, so he did not relate to the fantasy associated with fashion photography, Waldron said.

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“Fashion photography is about creating a story and typology and representing it … but Slim didn’t want to do that,” Waldron said. “He was interested in the real person, not just what he was wearing, but what he was driving, where he was going to have dinner afterward. It’s about all the parts that make up personal style. That’s what he really connected with. “

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Herein lies what Waldron described as the difference between fashion and style, between the transitory and the timeless. In fact, Aarons seemed not to care about his subjects’ closets or current trends.

“I didn’t do fashion,” the photographer once said. “I photographed people with their clothes that became fashion.”

“Slim Aarons: Style,” written by Shawn Waldron and Kate Betts, and published by Abrams Books, is out now.

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