Stair Galleries Fine Art Specialist Interviewed by Town & Country
Our Fine Art Department Director, Lisa Thomas, has been interviewed by Town & Country and featured in the following article on photographer Slim Aarons.
Why Can’t Slim Aarons Get Any Respect?
The photographer’s iconic images of “attractive people doing attractive things” defined an era—and are Instagram gold. So why has the art world ignored him?
Town & Country
— by Patricia Bosworth
If I were researching a book on modern culture right now, I’d wonder: How did society merge with celebrity, and how did that electric, uneasy mix eventually turn into the godawful mishmash that currently flashes across our television screens, the covers of our magazines, and the feeds of our social media accounts?
The first person I’d wish I could call would be Slim Aarons, a photographer who knew more about the subject than anybody on the planet. For more than 40 years he roamed the world on assignment, stopping at hitherto impenetrable enclaves in places such as Newport and Capri to document the private lives of the rich and privileged.
Aarons was a transitional figure at the height of the era of photojournalism, when magazines like Life were read by millions. The public had become fascinated by members of the affluent class, and Aarons captured them in all their splendor: C.Z. Guest poolside in Palm Beach; Babe Paley, the epitome of chic, posing outside her cottage in Round Hill, Jamaica. Today the same vivid images are shared by thousands every day on Instagram and Pinterest.
This October would see Aarons’s 100th birthday, so he’s receiving a great deal of attention. A documentary about his career directed by Fritz Mitchell is being screened during New York fashion week, and the Staley-Wise Gallery in Soho is celebrating the October 4 publication of Abrams’s Slim Aarons: Women with an exhibit of his photographs, opening in September. “It’s an homage to a very special artist who had a unique vision,” dealer Taki Wise says.
“Slim was an anthropologist with his camera. He documented an entire era.”
But for all the interest in his subject matter and, increasingly, in his life, there hasn’t been a serious critical or scholarly assessment of Aarons’s work. What was his vision? “Slim developed the environmental portrait to the level of art,” offers Christopher Sweet, the editor of several of Aarons’s books. The photographer Bruce Weber says, “He really changed the way we looked at old-school elegance and gave it its own vocabulary.” Douglas Friedman, who shoots for this magazine and many others, adds, “Slim was an anthropologist with his camera. He documented an entire era.”
If the above is the case, why aren’t his photos in more private collections or museums? One reason, according to Lisa Thomas of Stair Galleries, an auction house in Hudson, New York, may be that Aarons’s original collectors were his subjects, and they have aged out of the market. I would say it’s because his work is too popular and commercial, a turnoff for most museum curators. is would explain why there are no Aarons images hanging at MoMA or the International Center for Photography and why, so far, his profile of Somerset Maugham is the only piece listed at London’s National Portrait Gallery.
Aarons wasn’t born photographing beautiful people. Once upon a time he was a combat photographer for Yank magazine. For three years during World War II he crawled through battle fields in North Africa and Europe. He recorded the agonizing siege of Monte Cassino, in Italy, and was wounded during the invasion of Anzio when the Germans blew up a dock along an Italian beachhead. He reached Rome in time to see it fall to the Allies and took a now famous shot of an American soldier holding a baby in font of joyful crowds massing in the streets. It was on the cover of Yank in July 1944.
As soon as he was discharged, he set out to transform himself. He had almost forgotten that he’d been born George Allen Aarons in Manhattan and raised in New Hampshire before running o to join the Army at 18 to see the world and have adventures. After the war he felt wired thinking of all the possibilities in font of him. He vowed he’d never photograph death or destruction again: “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.”
“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.”
His first stop was Hollywood, “the dream capital of the world,” as he said, “as far away from reality as I could have imagined getting.” Freelancing for Life, photographing movie stars like Lana Turner and Clark Gable, he shot such rarefied events as an annual croquet match held at Howard Hawks’s Beverly Hills estate and attended by Darryl F. Zanuck and Howard Hughes.
Aarons was so tall, lanky, and sexy that he ended up appearing in at least two movies, including Up Front in 1951. In that production he apparently kept flubbing his one line—at least that’s the story Gary Cooper has just told Van Heflin, Clark Gable, and Jimmy Stewart in Aarons’s most famous photograph, The Kings of Hollywood. The four stars are laughing it up at Aarons’s expense at Romano ‘s restaurant in Beverly Hills on New Year’s Eve 1957.
He traveled constantly for Life (through which he met his future wife, Lorita “Rita” Dewart), first back and forth between California and New York, where he covered Broadway openings, and then to Italy for a spell at Life‘s bureau in Rome. “Rome was amazing. Gardens, palazzos, principessas… and Italy itself was so warm and golden.” He began exploring the entire country, and it became his second home. When the magazine asked him to go to Korea to cover the war there, he said no. By then he’d undergone a complete metamorphosis—and he had a mission. He would photograph only “attractive people in attractive places doing attractive things.”
I worked with Aarons at Holiday magazine in the late ’60s. Frank Zachary, the publication’s visionary art director (and future editor in chief of Town & Country), was using its pages to give postwar America, as he put it, “a passport to the glamour of travel and leisure.” Each issue was packed with writers like Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Joan Didion, along with photographers such as Edward Steichen, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and, of course, Aarons.
Aarons introduced the world to all sorts of gorgeous locales with his pictures: a great stone villa hanging over a cliff with panoramic views of the Bay of Naples; George Newhall’s spectacular Hillsborough, California estate (the house and gardens modeled on Le Petit Trianon at Versailles). Aarons extracted everything that was cool and chic about old money as he clicked away with his Leica, including skiing picnics at Snowmass Village, Colorado, and alfresco lunch parties in Palm Springs. “Even their vegetables are better,” he once joked to me about a wealthy couple. “And their champagne, and the down in their pillows.”
I would think about that remark when I’d see him at Holiday, sauntering down the halls, camera slung around his neck, cigarette dangling from his lips. Restless, keyed up when he wasn’t working, he couldn’t stop pacing until bushy-browed Zachary would call out, “Did you bring back some snaps, Slim? Show me your snaps!” And with that Aarons would trot into the art department with Zachary and they would huddle over the color slides from his latest assignment.
Zachary was his best friend, but more than that he was his mentor. He had come up with the idea for a style of portraiture (which Aarons was already instinctively employing) that he described as “environmental photography.” The subjects would be seen in their milieus—their gardens, their offices, their living rooms, with their books, “even their goddamn dogs,” as Zachary said. He had gathered a talented pool of photographers—Tom Hollyman, Arnold Newman, and Fred Maroon—and they all produced work that followed this line of thinking.
“He would photograph only attractive people in attractive places doing attractive things.”
Aarons had special ways of working that depended completely on the assignment. Sometimes he’d go off with a minimum of equipment and a gorgeous female assistant (he called them “smashers”) to distract his subjects. He would dip into and out of a location like a comet, returning with the story before anyone knew what had hit them. Other times he’d take hours and hours figuring out how to shoot and pose a subject. In 1960 he persuaded model and neighbor Mary Jane Russell, for example, to move her entire bedroom onto her lawn. In 1957 he had Madame de la Haye-Jousselin dress in a riding habit and sit sidesaddle in front of the wrought iron gate of her magnificent Normandy château. He waited and waited for her horse to raise its hoof. Zachary dubbed the result “a real honest-to-God 17th-century portrait.”
Arts critic Richard B. Woodward has his own theories about why Aarons doesn’t appear in more museum collections. “He was a society photographer and, like the society writer, barely respectable to posterity.” Plus, “the people in his pictures have it too easy, and so curators suspect—with good reason—that he did too. Aarons flattered everyone he photographed, and ultimately that’s not beneficial for a serious artist.” However, Woodward adds, “as sociological documents, Aarons’s photographs can be as fascinating to study as Lewis Hines’s.”
As a matter of fact, Aarons never made a big thing about creating high art, which is why his friend and protégé the photographer Jonathan Becker says, “He had no pretensions at all about what we’re doing. He kept reminding me, ‘It’s all bullshit.’ ”
Aarons came to me at Holiday only once. I was writing the copy for one of his takes and was having a difficult time of it. I hadn’t been on the assignment with him, so all I had was the layout and a bit of information. So far I had only the title: “Fashion Explosion in Capri.”
“Hiya, kid, how you doin’?” he said, towering over my desk. He was wearing khakis and a ragged blue blazer. “How you gonna do it?” he asked in his raspy drawl. I didn’t answer; I watched as he began circling the windowless room, taking in the surroundings. Then he zeroed in on me and squinted. He didn’t just look at me, he considered me. Like all great photographers, he had eyes that possessed curious powers of observation.
I think he sensed that I was scared. I think he noticed that the page in my typewriter had just a single sentence on it. But all he said was, “You can’t work here—it’s too dark!” And with that he practically dragged me down the hall to a sun-filled conference room, barking for another Capri layout.
We sat there for the next hour, and he patiently went over his pictures, explaining where and when he’d taken them, and then he reeled off details: “Fashion show in Capri…the Mare Moda festival…took place at night in the ruins of a 14th-century monastery,” while I scribbled on a yellow legal pad. I learned a lot from him in that hour, especially when he said that I should demand more research on a piece if I needed it, that I mustn’t be a aid to ask questions. Good advice.
Sometimes we’d have lunch with Zachary, who drank champagne with his Chinese food. Aarons gulped down ginger ale—never anything stronger. He was working nonstop, photographing the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim Palace, the Onassises, Gianni Agnelli, the Hearst family in Westchester. Despite all the glamour, the opulence, “he remained detached,” Aarons’s daughter Mary told me. “He was never a member of the jetset—didn’t want to be.”
When Zachary became editor of Town & Country in 1972, Aarons followed him there, and the duo produced some of their most iconic work. They both left in 1991, and Aarons retired to his rustic farmhouse in Katonah, New York. Good things were happening. In 1997, Aarons sold his archive to Getty Images—thousands upon thousands of prints, negatives, and transparencies over flowing from boxes in his attic. It was a deliberate decision, says Eric Rachlis, vice president of licensing services at Getty. “Having them all on a database made it easier to get good prints.” The choice would have a major impact on how—and how much of—his work was viewed. “Book publishers and magazines request his photos, but also advertisers and people designing homes. The most popular are the ones with lots of color, with people in bathing suits by pools.”
Aarons said he decided to sell his archive because he believed society as such didn’t exist anymore and he wanted the public to see how he had documented it. He sensed correctly that this new generation, so caught up in money, success, and luxury, would appreciate his images of manicured estates and private islands. Now that the world was being inundated by noisy, ugly tabloid media, it would be a relief to revisit stylish, more gracious eras. Of course, there were other reasons for the sale. “I kept asking, ‘How much did you get?’ and he’d never tell me,” Becker says. “He’d say, ‘I got what I call fuck-you money. Remember, you are never free until you have fuck-you money.'”
“Aarons decided to sell his archive because he believed society as such didn’t exist anymore and he wanted the public to see how he had documented it.”
Around that period his first book of photographs, A Wonderful Time, was being rediscovered. (Initially published in 1974, it had been panned by the New York Times’s Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who deemed its focus on wealth and rich people “repelling,” writing that Aarons “manages to make even T.S. Eliot look decadent.”) Thirty years later it has become a collector’s item, selling for $2,000 at auction. Aarons would go on to publish two more superb collections of his work, Once Upon a Time and A Place in the Sun.
In every one, Aarons’s photographs are a veritable who’s who of high society: Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier at a gala in Monaco, Bing Crosby at Pebble Beach, John Huston at his hideaway in Puerto Vallarta, Prince Aga Khan IV at his Sardinian resort. I happen to love the photos in La Dolce Vita, a book published a er his death, because they reveal the photographer’s decades-long love a air with Italy. From breathtaking views of the Sicilian countryside to intimate portraits of celebrities and high society, it captures the essence of the good life.
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, according to Lisa Thomas at Stairs Gallery. “In one sale an image will make $14,000, and in another the same image will make $1,500,” she says. “at disparity can mean there just aren’t that many people competing for the artist’s work at any given time.”
But Thomas says there are signs that a new generation of buyers is drawn to his work. “To them it’s not so much whom he shot as how he captured the moments.” at thought is echoed by the art photographer Tina Barney, who has her own unique perspective on the world of privilege. “I didn’t know Slim Aarons, and I wasn’t inspired or in influenced by him, but I was always interested in the way he photographed: very few close-ups. He deliberately stood far enough away from his subjects so his camera captured their surroundings, their backgrounds. His best portraits were statements.”
So, was Aarons an artist? I think I know what he would have said. When I began writing longer pieces for Holiday, he always questioned me before I headed out on assignments. “Have you done your homework?” he’d ask. “Are you going to be prepared?” Over and over he’d tell me that the most important thing was getting the story.
“He saw himself as a reporter,” says his daughter Mary. “A photojournalist. A storyteller.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Town & Country.