Slim Aarons started out photographing war – but his greatest assignment was in the trenches of fashion

A new book celebrates Slim Aarons’s uncanny eye for the lives of celebrities, socialites, and luminaries. Clémence Michallon speaks to co-author Shawn Waldron about the man who charmed his way into the jet-set

Saturday 25 December 2021 14:32
<p>American lawyer and businessman Alexander Cochrane Cushing (in yellow) with others at the Squaw Valley resort, which he developed, in California, in 1961</p>

American lawyer and businessman Alexander Cochrane Cushing (in yellow) with others at the Squaw Valley resort, which he developed, in California, in 1961

In 1954, right around Christmastime, the photographer Slim Aarons travelled to Miami Beach on assignment for the magazine Holiday. From the boardwalk, he spotted an umbrella shaped like a Christmas tree, planted in the sand next to a chaise longue. The scene was gold, but it needed people to come alive. Aarons sprung into action. Back then, Miami did not have a model agency, but it did have Burdines, an upscale retailer where models would try on clothes for interested customers. Aaron asked the fashion coordinator for guidance. The fashion coordinator recommended Mary Ballou Stevenson, a model who worked at the store’s tea room.

Aarons asked Ballou if she could spare a few minutes, throw on a bathing suit, and meet him at the beach. The model agreed. By the time she came down, in a coral one-piece and a hat, Aarons had set up his camera and tripod. Quickly, he directed her, snapping a couple of images. During that time, a man happened to walk by on the boardwalk. Aarons recruited him too, asking him to go lie on another lounge chair in the background. The man complied. A few more snaps later, Aarons thanked his two models and let them go. He had the shot – Ballou lying on the chaise, hat slightly tipped over her face, with the mystery man resting face-down on his own deck chair. Between the two, the incongruous Christmas tree umbrella, and an even more uncanny pile of presents on a small table.

The whole thing, according to author Shawn Waldron, who spoke with Ballou, was over in 15 minutes. That’s all the time Aarons needed to compose the definition of an arresting photo – one that still fascinates 67 years later. “That was Slim,” Waldron tells The Independent in a phone conversation. “He just packed up and moved on.”

Hired models pose in the latest collection by Dimitris Kritsas, a young Greek couturier, among the columns of the temple to Poseidon at Sounion, in 1961. This is one of Aarons’s last photoshoots with hired models

Debutante CZ Guest with her Great Dane at her family’s home in Palm Beach, Florida, in 1955

American fashion designer James Galanos with supermodel Dovima at his New York atelier in 1960

Aarons, a US Army veteran who got his start as a combat photographer, is primarily remembered for his photos capturing the lives of celebrities, socialites, and luminaries. Aarons himself said he wanted to photograph “attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places”. His many subjects included household names such as Salvador Dalí, Jackie Kennedy, and Louis Armstrong. But a conversation with Waldron, a curator for Getty Images, the manager of Aarons’s archive, and the co-author of the newly released book Slim Aarons: Style, points to the depths of Aarons’s work and the meaning of his search for beauty.

Born on 19 October 1916 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Aarons claimed he had grown up an orphan. It wasn’t until 2016 that a documentary revealed that wasn’t exactly true: his mother was institutionalized when he was a child due to mental illness. His father, according to Waldron, “essentially abandoned the family”, and his brother died by suicide. “There was a lot of strife,” Waldron says. Aarons joined the military at a young age, serving as a war photographer during World War II.

Those years shaped Aarons’s craft for years to come. Photography, Waldron says, gave structure to his life. Working on assignments nurtured an eye for reportage that would define his style for the rest of his career. Aarons returned from the war mentally scarred, having witnessed terrible events. While other photographers chose to keep working in combat zones, Aarons needed something else.

“Once the Korean War started, he was asked if he wanted to go on assignment with some other photojournalists who were being sent over,” Waldron says. “And he jokingly said, ‘The only beach I’m landing on is going to have blondes and bikinis.’ It makes light of it, but it speaks to his mentality and where he was coming from.”

Dubbed ‘Kings of Hollywood’, this photo features Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Gary Cooper, and James Stewart during a New Year’s party at Romanoff’s, then a legendary restaurant in Beverly Hills, in 1957

Heiress Nonie Phipps with friends in Biarritz, France, in 1960

Guests are pictured at the Kaufmann House, designed by architect Richard Neutra in Palm Springs, California, in 1970

A fashion show takes place poolside at the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, in 1961

Aarons turned his camera lens to the glitterati, but he never lost his journalistic instincts. By the end of his career, he would scope out a location for a couple of days, not even picking up his camera. He spent that time talking to people, getting a sense of the action. “He would get a feel for what’s happening. Where are people going to eat? What’s the good side of the mountain? When does it look good?” Waldron says. “It would just be him, on his own, going into shops, restaurants, talking to the maitre d’, the waiters, the bartenders. He always did his groundwork.”

In scoping out his surroundings, Aarons placed himself in a position of being able to stage and snap memorable shots – such as the one of Ballou, the unnamed man, and the Christmas tree umbrella – in a matter of minutes. Many of his photos exist at a mystifying intersection between posed and candid; his subjects are aware of his presence, and they are often posing, but even in those moments, they don’t seem entirely in control. They are subjects under Aarons’s lens. “He was an editorial photographer,” Waldron says. “He was a photojournalist first. For a man who had this booming voice and was 6’4’’, he was very good at being a fly on the wall.”

‘Slim Aarons: Style’, by Shawn Aldron and Kate Betts, is a celebration of Aarons’s work

A view of an exhibition of Slim Aarons’s work on 12 April 2018 in New York City

A view of photos featured at an exhibition of Slim Aarons’s work on 12 April 2018 in New York City

Some of Aarons’s photos are more formal than others, but the people in front of his camera are wearing their own clothes and posing in their own environments. Aarons, Waldron says, worked almost alone, perhaps with one assistant, but without a stylist or hair and makeup artists. There is something revealing in asking someone to style themselves for the camera. It’s a way of unearthing not only how they view themselves, but also how they hope to be seen.

Aarons died in 2006 in Montrose, New York. The New York Times praised him in an obituary for his charm that “won the trust of jet-setters and movie stars” and for his work, which “captured fleeting, golden images as his favorites subjects played and preened in a privacy almost unimaginable today”.

It was Aarons’s sense of humanity, to Waldron, that set him apart and allowed his work to stand the test of time. “He was always looking for a human moment,” Waldron says. “And he had an eye for that timeless quality.” Aarons, he adds, citing the fashion designer Michael Kors, whom he spoke with for the book, was about style, not fashion. “Fashion is tied to time,” he says, “whereas style is eternal.”

Slim Aarons: Style by Slim Aarons, Shawn Waldron and Kate Betts (Abrams, £60/$85) is out now

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