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Artistic license: Slim Aarons

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Aarons’ ‘environmental photography’ has always been about armchair travelling – showing the jet set on holiday in iconic hotels or rarefied places such as Gstaad, Capri and Bermuda, where the weather is always perfect, cocktails by the pool are the norm, and big sunglasses are de rigueur. No wonder he set the bar high when it came to holiday style and destination envy …

Manhattan-born Aarons (1916 – 2006) was initially a military photographer for the US Military Academy at West Point, before working as a war photographer during World War II. He had little interest in reportage, or capturing reality; allegedly he turned down an assignment to cover the Korean War, saying “I’ll only do a beach if it has a blonde on it.” After the war, he returned to New York where he began to photograph celebrities for magazines such as Life, Town & Country and Holiday. “After you’ve seen a concentration camp, you really don’t want to see any more bad things,” he told Vanity Fair, echoing the sentiments of many returning veterans.

Working without stylists or elaborate lighting, he preferred to photograph his subjects in their own clothes in their own milieu. Apparently he refused to photograph anyone in jeans, sneakers and t-shirts, preferring instead bold prints, colourful kaftans and shorts for men.

He described his forte as “photographing attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places.” Essentially he made rich WASPy “old money” families look sexy. The attractive people he photographed included actresses Grace Kelly, Julie London, Joan Collins and Brigitte Bardot, society swans CZ Guest, Babe Paley and Gloria Guinness and actual or American royalty including the Kennedys. “The Kings of Hollywood,” one of his most famous photographs, shows Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Gary Cooper, and Jimmy Stewart laughing in a restaurant (Romanoff in Hollywood).“I’m not a master photographer. I’m a journalist with a camera,” Aarons declared. “People forget. It isn’t about one photograph, like all magazines publish today. We were storytellers.” Study Aarons’ photography carefully and you’ll realise the people are extras – the real scene-stealer is the pool, a symbol of escapism.

He published his first (picture) book, A Wonderful Time, An Intimate Portrait of the Good Life in 1974. Tom Ford and Paul Smith have acknowledged Aarons’ influence as have Michael Kors and Anna Sui, the latter basing a collection on his images calling A Wonderful Time “the quintessential guide for good taste.” Steven Meisel’s so-called “Valley of the Dolls” campaign for Versace with (bouffant-hair) models Amber Valletta and Georgina Grenville references Aarons’s picture of women sitting poolside at Richard Neutra’s famous Kaufmann house in Palm Springs. This season designer Judith Milgrom of Maje has produced a capsule collection of eight designs with one of his prints for a poolside story. However Aarons was always adamant, “I don’t do fashion. I take photos of people in their own clothes and that becomes fashion.”

A sequel to A Wonderful Time was published in 2003 – Once Upon a Time, followed by A Place in the Sun in 2005. Aaron sold his catalogue to Getty in 1997 making it more well-known. By the end of his career, he knew “everyone” in society and was so fully immersed in the jet set lifestyle, he holidayed in the places he had formerly captured on camera – a self-fulfilling prophecy perhaps. After his death, it was discovered that he came from a poor Jewish immigrant family – his mother had mental health problems and was admitted to psychiatric hospital – something he had hidden from his wife and socialite friends. “Civilised Snooze” is a photograph of Aarons himself in Athens.

Need to Know: Jonathan Adler now offers photographic prints from the Slim Aarons Archive. All photographs are printed and authorised by the Getty Images Gallery, London, and are available in custom sizes to suit any space. Prices start from £995. Each image is printed from scans of the original negative then mounted on aluminium and faced with museum quality Plexiglas; uk.jonathanadler.com.

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