Slim Aarons once summarized his work by saying “I photograph attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places”.
Although his name is not the necessarily the first to come to mind, highly saturated healthy and wealthy-looking bronzed bodies in prestigious now-retro settings are a trademark recognized by people the world over. Aarons’ style has influenced generations of glamour-seekers who look to recreate the style that has become emblematic of achieving luxury. Legendary designers like Tom Ford and Paul Smith are among those whose collections have given more than a gentle nod to the aspirational worlds captured in Aarons’ photographs.
Slim Aarons chronicled an era of unabashed glamour during a period of Western economic expansion. Though interest in his work declined for a period after his death, it has grown in reach and appeal over recent years. His subjects appear admirably carefree, with the effortless chic afforded by great wealth. Perhaps, his renewed appeal speaks to the allure of simpler times in these economically, politically and environmentally complex days.
So who was Slim Aarons?
George Allen “Slim” Aarons (1916-2006) learned his trade after he signed up for military service at 18 years old during World War II and was assigned the role of combat photographer. After the war, he made a choice: to avoid death and destruction going forward. Instead, he pursued the aspirational, mostly through a lens of beautiful women. As Aarons himself said, “I’d wandered through enough concentration camps and bombed-out villages. I’d slept in the mud and been shot at. I owed myself some easy, luxurious living. I wanted to be on the sunny side of the street.”
Aarons soon found himself in Hollywood, where he freelanced for Life magazine and photographed the stars of the time, including James Stewart and Clark Gable. Before long he was invited to document life behind closed doors and forged friendships with the Hollywood elite, making him the first choice photographer for the American rich and famous.
One experience thought to be of significance in shaping the young Aarons was his presence in Rome at the moment of the city’s liberation at the end of World War II. The combination of a uniquely historical and beautiful environment, with the joy and momentum of the end of war, were said to have made a lasting impression on his memory. Much of Aarons’ best-known work, even documenting the wealthy of the USA, was influenced by his ‘love affair with Italy’. Aarons’ focus on posturing and gossip around swimming pools in particular feels like a 20th century response to the bathing culture of ancient Rome. In his books, La Dolce Vita and Once Upon a Time one might find, for example, a portrait of a Roman Prince standing amid the ruins of a veritable ancient Roman structure, or a portrait of a tanned woman posing in a Floridan mock-palatial structure built for the super-rich of the 1970s.
Why is Slim Aarons Important Today?
“Slim was an anthropologist with his camera. He documented an entire era,” said the photographer Douglas Friedman. Although the photographer did not consider himself an artist, by panning out and capturing the full setting: houses, swimming pools, pets and possessions, his portraits offer up for interpretation as much as many of history’s greatest power portraits. In his Short History of Portraits, the art dealer Philip Mould OBE makes a statement about power portraits that could just as well be applied to Aarons’ work in the context of American society: “Innovation, chic, directness and theatre mark out all these portraitists: indeed it is tempting to believe that they in part created, rather than merely recorded, the history of British society.”
Access to the private lives and parties of wealthy subjects of Aarons’ photographs was a rarified opportunity not afforded to many photographers at the time. Aarons gained the trust of the elite through his relentlessly flattering photographs. Tall, slender (hence the nickname Slim), handsome and charismatic, Aarons made an impression on the social scene. According to the recollections of colleagues and family, he possessed a cool arm’s-length approach to the allure of his luxurious surroundings. Nevertheless his social standing and recognizable features made him a protagonist of sorts, securing him small roles in films. Slim was even said to have been the influence for James Stewart’s character in Hitchcock’s legendary film, Rear Window, set in an apartment said to have been modeled on Aarons’ own abode.
Despite Aarons’ work having served as a who’s who of celebrity in a bygone era, today’s audiences are more interested in the how than the who. Fashion, advertising and Instagram: forces that shape the 21st century vision of luxury draw heavily on Aarons’ work. After he retired, Aarons sold his archive to Getty. Rather than giving him a future in museum collections, his deal with Getty ensured that his images continued to be used commercially, where they cemented his position as the progenitor of a luxury aesthetic widely recognized across the Western world.
So Why Hasn’t Aarons Been Embraced by the Artistic Establishment?
The photographer’s style has impacted, among others, the fields of art, fashion and interior design, but the name Slim Aarons is not widely known by many who would recognize his work. Despite having created some of the most iconic imagery in Western culture over a period of more than 30 years, Aarons’ work has been featured in very few museum exhibitions. There may be a number of factors at play.
For the most part, Aarons photographed on commission for magazines. His unfalteringly flattering approach towards his subjects has left some to question the artistic integrity of his work. In many cases, Aarons applied a disciplined creative approach to capturing the perfect image, and as a result, his work has been seen as commercial, rather than art for art’s sake.
Aarons’ sale of his archive to Getty meant that it was much easier to recreate high-quality prints, resulting in his work becoming relatively ubiquitous, a reality that may have resulted in less competition for his work in the art market, ultimately devaluing perceptions around, as well as the price of, his work.
How Much Does Slim Aarons’ Work Sell for?
“Despite the ubiquity of his work—or perhaps because of it—collectible images signed and dated by Aarons have done erratically at auction over the past decade”, said Lisa Thomas of Stair Gallery to Town & Country Magazine.
Historically, much of his photography was collected by those who were featured in the photographs. As his subjects aged, so did the collectors of his work. Nevertheless, a renewed interest in the aesthetics of his photography among new audiences may signal greater interest among collectors, resulting in more stable prices for Slim Aarons work at auction.
Looking for more? Browse photography for sale at auction now on Invaluable.