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Slim Aarons, King Of Hollywood Photographers (A Story Of Faking It... And Making It)

Culture | August 26, 2020

Left: 'Poolside Glamour' by Slim Aarons. Right: Photographer Slim Aarons (right) on board a yacht off Capri, Italy, September 1968. Sources: Amazon.com; Slim Aarons/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Slim Aarons was a photographer of the rich and famous. He was a fixture in Town and Country and the subject of a recent documentary, and even if you haven't heard of him, you've seen his pictures. His frequent subjects, to quote a sitcom theme, were "swimming pools and movie stars" -- throw in wealthy vacationers, chic skiers, and obscure royalty, and you get some idea of the circles in which Aarons moved. He hopped from fabulous locale to fabulous locale like a camera-slinging James Bond, hobnobbing with the upper crust and capturing their enviable leisure lifestyles. But as revealed in Slim Aarons: The High Life, Aarons had a secret.

Slim Aarons Inserted Himself Into High Society

'Eye of the Beholder' by Slim Aarons. Source: Fine Art America

We've all felt imposter syndrome, the belief that we shouldn't be where we are and that we'll be exposed as frauds at any moment. Slim Aarons didn't have that problem, instead he made a career out of it. He snapped iconic photos of celebrities and the hyper rich in the 50s, '60s and '70s, and no one ever questioned why he was there. By his third decade of deceit he blended in with the furniture, he belonged. It was only after his death that a documentary filmmaker discovered the truth about Aarons, that he wasn't the King of Hollywood that he claimed to be. 

Slim Aarons was just a regular guy, maybe

'Nice Pool, Villa Artemis, Palm Beach' Source: 1stdibs.com

Following World War II, Slim Aarons knew exactly the kind of life he should lead. He spent his teens as George Allen Aarons attending West Point and working as a combat photographer, eventually earning a Purple Heart for his time in battle. The bullets, the sweat, the ever present stench of death - they all taught him one thing, that normal life was not for him.

Slim Aarons appeared in California as if he were born there, emerging from the Pacific Ocean like The Birth of Venus but with a camera in hand. After turning down an opportunity to shoot photos of the Korean War for Life, he was hired to photograph parties held by socialites. His work allowed the viewer to be a part of this rarified world, something that had a greater value than seeing the inside of yet another war on foreign soil.

Point and shoot

'Luxury in the Snow' by Slim Aarons. Source: Fine Art America

Throughout his work with Life, Town & Country, and Holiday, Aarons never used a stylist. He made use of the lighting on hand, and he certainly didn't tell his subjects what to do. Aarons felt that his work would suffer if he falsified any of the scenes so instead he slipped through the ranks of the rich and famous and shot what he shot. He referred to this method as "photographing attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places."

With his photos as his only identification, Aarons found himself ensconced within the small world of the uber-wealthy in the 1950s. To the people he photographed, Slim was a guy who grew up on a farm New Hampshire before joining the Army and following his true passion. He claimed that he was just like the people he photographed, that he came out west with a dream and a little bit of change in his pocket. When asked why he was allowed to exist inside the glitz and glamor he told The Independent that it was his ability to keep quiet that kept him coming back. He explained:

I knew everyone They would invite me to one of their parties because they knew I wouldn't hurt them. I was one of them.

Aarons wanted to have fun so that's what he did

'Yachting Trip,' by Slim Aarons. Source: Fine Art America

Somewhere along the way we decided that artists are supposed to be tortured. Whether they're writers, musicians, actors, or photographers they're not supposed to have any fun -- and that capturing the grit of the grim lives of common people amounted to real art. Slim Aarons went against that belief wholeheartedly, and only chose to accept gigs that allowed him to have a good time. He photographed parties, he took pictures on yachts, but he never lost the guerrilla style shooting sense that helped him survive World War II. New York magazine founder Clay Felker recalls

Slim and [his assistant] were a guerrilla team. They went in, went out, without anyone knowing what hit them.

Aarons Shot Pools And Party-goers -- You Know, The 'Other Stuff'

'Marbella Pool' by Slim Aarons. Source: invaluable.com

For Aarons, getting in and out was only part of his photographic missions. His main concern was making sure that he never had to take pictures of the horrors that men do, like many veterans he had his fill following the war. In the early 2000s, he explained his love of photographing the rich and famous:

Ninety-nine percent of my contemporaries kept on reporting about the miseries and worries of the world after the war. But hell, someone had to do the other stuff.

High society loved Aarons for making them look fabulous

'Penthouse Pool' by Slim Aarons. Source: Fine Art America

Even in the mid-century there was no shortage of photographers who were salivating at the thought of taking photos of the rich and famous, but Slim Aarons was let into the club because they liked him. Sure, he made them look good with minimal equipment, but they also liked having him around. Aarons spent so much time rubbing elbows with the rich and famous that he became one of them. He may not have had their money but by the 1960s he was a well to do member of society, he was a personal friend of Jackie Kennedy (one of his favorite subjects) and on speaking terms with President Kennedy (who asked him about a girl in a photo spread about Lake Como). He escorted Mrs. Douglas MacArthur to the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute ball.

Aarons was such a character that he found himself the toast of Hollywood for a little while. Standing at over six feet tall he was a shoe in for small roles, although he wasn't accustomed to playing any part other than Slim Aarons. He consistently mucked up screen tests, much to the delight of the actors he photographed. His most famous portrait, "Kings of Hollywood," features Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Gary Cooper, and Jimmy Stewart having a laugh at a restaurant table. The source of their gaiety? Aaron's horrendous acting skills.

His photography changed the way we look at everything

Slim Aarons' 'Kings of Hollywood.' Source: Pinterest

It's not that Aarons simply photographed rich people and made them look good. The way he photographed architecture, clothing, and cars rewired our brains to look at objects in an all new light. When his photos were released the world went into a tizzy. A photo of Peter Pulitzer in plain khakis started the "khaki craze," the same thing happened with swimming pools and casual outfits worn by royalty. While he was alive Aaron noted that he never dressed anyone, he just shot real life.

Aarons' output waned in the '80s as a more stylized look took over the photography and art worlds, but his work became fashionable again in the mid '90s, although he was long out of the game at that point. Even so, his biggest score happened at the end of the millennium thanks to an old money family. In 1997 he made a handshake deal with Mark Getty of the Getty Images photo archive for his life's work in exchange for an amount of money so obscene that even Aaron refused to say. He explained:

He gave me what I call ‘F**k you’ money. Remember—because this is important—you’re never free until you have ‘F**k you’ money.

(Almost) Everything about Slim Aarons was a lie

source: pinterest

Slim Aarons passed away at the age of 89 in 2006, with millions of dollars in his bank account and a lifetime of iconic work, but was it all a lie? In 2016 documentary filmmaker Fritz Mitchell released the film Slim Aarons: The High Life, revealing that Aarons wasn't born in New Hampshire or Vermont or any other WASPy locale. Instead, he was a Jewish kid from New York City. He was born and raised on the Lower East Side in a Yiddish speaking family before he was passed around to his relatives after his mother was committed to a psych ward.

George Allen Aarons stopped speaking to his immediate family out of spite; he was frustrated and confused as to why they would abandon him, why they didn't want him. Rather than seek out their love he made his own way in the world and reinvented himself as Slim, an orphan photographer embedded with the rich and famous. Even with his eye for an amazing photo, Slim may not have been able to get along so well with the hyper-wealthy if they knew of his origins, so he did away with the things that didn't work and made a whole new persona.

'Black Tie Evening' by Slim Aarons. Source: Fine Art America

The fantastic life of Slim Aarons is really a matter of perspective. In a way he was orphaned as a child. He really did earn a Purple Heart in World War II, and he knew how to take one hell of photograph. Aarons understood that everyone - himself and his subjects included - were only as real as they pretended to be.

Tags: Photographers | Photography | Rare Photos From... | Slim Aarons

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.