One of the most famous photographers of the 20th century, Slim Aarons captured the post-war jet set, but his images belie a desire to document, says Rosie Paterson.
Even if you’ve never stayed at Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes, France, you’ve likely seen a photograph of it. One photograph in particular, taken in the height of summer in 1976. There’s a swimming pool in the foreground — blasted out of basalt rock — bronzed figures in various states of undress around it and a white, low-slung Art Deco building with rounded corners in the background. To the centre left, there’s a diving board jutting out above a French-navy ocean.
The hotel still exists — one of the most famous in the world — as does the diving board. The pool, too, albeit much updated. The photographer is sadly no longer with us. He was known as Slim Aarons. Over the course of a six-decade career, he documented, in his own words, ‘attractive people who were doing attractive things in attractive places’.
Ironically, George ‘Slim’ Aarons, would not have described himself as a jet-set photographer. Born in October 1916, on the east coast of the US, Aarons cut his professional teeth as a photojournalist in the Second World War, shooting for Stars and Stripes and Yank magazines. After the war, echoing many of his colleagues, he looked for work inside the burgeoning television and magazine industries.
‘It was an alumni association of sorts,’ says his daughter, Mary Aarons, who sometimes doubled as her father’s on-set assistant. ‘They depended on each other for referrals and LIFE magazine was huge. He shot a lot for them, which took him to Hollywood and Broadway, shooting celebrities and then that led to more.’
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Aarons’s charm helped to propel him in the right direction. He made friends in high places, including fellow photographer Lord Snowdon and Princess Margaret, photographing the latter in Mustique. He also travelled extensively in Europe, portraying royal families and aristocrats, often in front of their family seats, as well as designers, celebrities and movers and shakers, on cliff tops, beaches and boats.
When Aarons was commissioned to photograph the House of Liechtenstein, he took his daughter with him. She recalls him refuting one of the royal woman’s attempts to put on a ballgown: ‘He said: “No, I want you to look natural.” He made me go to her bedroom with her and she undid her hair and we picked out a simple, block-print dress — he got a really nice picture.’
Not, it should be noted, without some hilarity. The family were, and still are, prolific art collectors with a particular penchant for Peter Paul Rubens. ‘They were moving their collection from one part of the castle to another,’ explains Ms Aarons, ‘so when we were shooting outside, all the Rubens were being walked past us!’
There is an obvious dichotomy between how Aarons saw himself, and what he set out to do with his work, and how he and that same work is viewed today. ‘He was a journalist, a hardcore journalist, and he considered himself a journalist,’ says Ms Aarons. ‘His magazine spreads had big captions; the photographs told stories… they described the who and what and why.’
Nowadays, although still revered, perhaps even more so, his images — widely circulated on social media — have lost some of their context. They’ve been copied and shared and printed without their counterparts, without their captions — and thus, without their stories. To look at only one, when his entire archive totals millions (it was acquired in full by Mark Getty in the mid 1990s), is tantamount to a crime.
In the late 1950s, Aarons travelled to England, on an assignment for the British Tourist Office. He photographed, among others, Earl Mountbatten of Burma and his wife, Lady Edwina Mountbatten, and the then Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. England was still reeling from the effects of the Second World War and Government coffers were low, but, viewed through Aarons’s rose-tinted lens, the country’s historic and fashionable aristocracy centre stage, it looked enticing. Storied and well to do. Better than it actually was. Naturally, the Tourist Board made all the necessary arrangements.
Aarons’s portrait of the Hon Desmond Guinness, author, co-founder of the Irish Georgian Society and part-heir to the Guinness family fortune, and his two children (with Princess Hermione Marie-Gabrielle von Urach) is perhaps the photographer’s most striking taken in the British Isles. The image is close-cropped; the trio sit shoulder to shoulder in close proximity; the bookcase visible behind them is blurred, but you’d likely never notice because Guinness, the son of Diana Mitford, had inherited the famous Mitford eyes — a pale and piercing glacial blue — and duly passed them on to his own children.
The portrait’s composition is unusual — in the majority of Aarons’s other work a beautiful landscape, manicured garden or grand house serves as a backdrop; a person, or group of people, pose in the foreground, sometimes eating, riding or snorkelling or doing any number of activities characterised by the idle rich. Sometimes, a secondary person or group of people are caught in between.
For Stuart Cantor, a fine-art photographer whose work is often compared to Aarons, it is exactly this — the composition of Aarons’s photographs — that stops him in his tracks. ‘For me, that is my “inspiration”, his photographic composition is always perfect… The other thing is, he is shooting on film, not a digital camera, so he didn’t know what photos he had taken until he got home and processed it.’
Although captured in a tumultuous era, pock-marked by civil unrest on both sides of the Atlantic, Aarons’s imagery pulls at our nostalgic heartstrings for a time that was also defined by more glamorous means of travel and living — at least for those who could afford it. Did he buy into it? Perhaps not — he once inscribed a book of his own photography to protégé Jonathan Becker with the words: ‘Dear Jonathan, Remember, it’s all bullshit. Best as always, Slim’ — but few can argue with its enduring allure.
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