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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Slim Aarons

Summer It, Slim Aarons
Artists have long had a preference for painting "beautiful people" going back at least as far as the Egyptians and Greeks. In all likelihood that's why a lot of sculpture from such an early age has managed to survive. Art lovers treasure that which is beautiful. It's why the Mona Lisa was painted in the first place and why her smiling (sort of) face has survived since Leonardo. Another reason would seem to be that beautiful people and wealth tend to go hand in hand, thus affording artists a ready market for beautiful painted portraits. And with the advent of portrait photography, there's no reason that paradigm would have changed. The only difference between now and then is that the photographers art has become much more spontaneous. Photos no longer have to be precisely and arduously posed. The quality of film kept improving, moving from black and white to glorious (if somewhat impermanent) color, while all the time its cost decreased. Then with the digital revolution, cost per shot fell virtually to zero while convenience and image resolutions have skyrocketed. Thus, over the past 117 years (give or take a month or so) every aspect of the photographers art has gone from evolutionary in character to revolutionary at an astounding rate.
Though a consummate photographic artist, Aarons was seldom photographed. The "exhausted" Slim Aarons above, with the Athens Acropolis in the background, was a rare exception. The ones just above date from 2003 and were the last taken of him before his death in 2006.
Slim Aarons lived though much of this revolution. Born in 1916, Aaron's real name was George Allen Aarons. He garnered the nicknamed "slim" (for obvious reasons) as a boy growing up in Manhattan. He came of age as a combat photographer during WW II, when Graflex Graphic cameras utilizing 6 x 9 inch film sheets were standard even though the 35mm SLR became available during the 1930s. However, even most professional photographers would have been hard-pressed to have afforded one. During the war, Aarons earned a purple heart and came to the realization that the only beach worth landing on was "decorated with beautiful, seminude girls tanning in a tranquil sun."

The Kings of Hollywood: Clark Gable, Van Heflin,
Gary Cooper, and Jimmy Stewart, New Year's Eve,
1957. What were they laughing at? Aarons claims
they were laughing at him.
After the war, Aarons turned his combat photo-journalist connections to Life magazine, into assignments for Town and Country, and Holiday while moving to California where he began shooting highly flattering images of movie stars and other celebrities. He once summed up his career as "photographing attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places." In effect, he caught a "wave" as an entire nation sought out attractive people, places, and things in an effort to forget the ugliness and deprivation of ten years of hard times and five years of war. His most famous photo, The Kings of Hollywood (above) perfectly captured this pervasive national mood.

Naturally, in pursuing the beautiful people of the
world, most were of the feminine persuasion.
Slim Aarons chronicled the leisure pursuits of the rich and famous in stunning environments, letting the natural beauty of his subjects become his focal point. More importantly, in doing so, he won the trust of those he photographed. He became one of them, and thus was allowed to shoot some of the most intimate portraiture of the 20th century. Aarons’ access to this elite group of subjects speaks to the genuine friendship and confidence he nurtured with his subjects such a Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, Bogart and Bacall and Jimmy Stewart. Aarons is thought to have been the model for Jimmy Stewart’s part as the fascinated watcher in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and his apartment surely inspired the one in the film. Slim Aarons was anything but a silent, voyeuristic photographer. He lived a life as full and rich as the icons and imagery he captured on film.

Poolside Gossip, 1970, Palm Springs, Slim Aarons.
Unlike most portrait photographers, Aarons never used a stylist, or a makeup artist. Doing so would destroy the immediacy of his candid style. An oft-cited example of this approach is his 1970 Poolside Gossip shot at Richard Neutra's Kaufman House with owner Nelda Linsk as one of the models in the photo. "I knew everyone," Aarons once claimed. "They would invite me to their parties because they knew I wouldn't hurt them."

Lounging In Verbier, Slim Aarons
Slim Aarons was chronicling the
"Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous"
long before Robin Leach tasted his
first canapé.
In 1974, Harper & Rowe published a comprehensive (at the time) book, A Wonderful Time: An Intimate Portrait of the Good Life, by Slim Aarons. Eventually the search for beautiful people in beautiful places caused Aarons to spread his wings and join the jet-set he so delighted in photo-graphing. Snowy, but sunny, Alps (above) replaced tropical beaches and glamorous swimming pools. The entire northern Mediterranean became his bikini-rimmed swim-ming pool. And as he approached the ripe old age of ninety, the number of books archiving his work grew to six (the more recent five from Harry N. Abrams Inc.

Not all celebrity swimming pools are
equally beautiful.


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