How Slim Aarons Captured High Society

George "Slim" Aarons was an American photographer who captured images of the leading socialites and celebrities of the 20th century. He was born on 29th October 1916 to Yiddish-speaking immigrants who had lived in a tenement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His father, Charlie Aarons (born Susman Aronowicz), distanced himself from the family, and his mother, Stella Karvetzky, was sent to a sanitarium. Aarons spent his childhood moving between an aunt, an orphanage, and his grandmother and cousins in New Hampshire.


Manhattan’s Lower East Side (c.1915)

Aarons joined the military at the age of 18, and served as a combat photographer in World War II. This period was instrumental in shaping his skills and perspectives, capturing some of the most harrowing and poignant moments of the war. His service earned him a Purple Heart, and the discipline and experiences from these years greatly influenced his future work. Aarons said combat had taught him the only beach worth landing on was "decorated with beautiful, seminude girls tanning in a tranquil sun".


Slim Aarons during his US Army service

After the war, Aarons moved to California and began photographing celebrities. There, he captured one of his most acclaimed photographs, "Kings of Hollywood." Taken on New Year's Eve in 1957, the image shows Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Gary Cooper, and James Stewart relaxing at a bar in full formal wear.


Kings of Hollywood (1957)

Aarons' philosophy was to photograph "attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places." This mantra guided his work and contributed to his distinctive style. His photographs from this period are characterised by their vivid portrayal of a life of privilege and leisure. Aarons had a knack for making even the most opulent lifestyles seem approachable and desirable.


The Ocean Club on Paradise Island in the Bahamas (1963)

One of Aarons’ most iconic works is the 1970 photograph "Poolside Gossip," taken at the Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs, California. This image, like many of his others, encapsulates the essence of the mid-20th century American high society – elegant, relaxed, and impeccably styled.


Poolside Gossip (1970)

Throughout the 1950s to the 1980s, Aarons traveled extensively, photographing high society in glamorous locations such as the French Riviera, Italy’s Amalfi Coast, and the ski resorts of Switzerland. His work offers a window into the lifestyles of the affluent, with an emphasis on natural settings and genuine moments. "I knew everyone," he said in an interview with The (London) Independent in 2002. "They would invite me to one of their parties because they knew I wouldn't hurt them. I was one of them".


Countess Gioia Gaetani-Lovatelli on Deck. Porto Rotondo (1982)

In 1997, Mark Getty (co-founder of Getty Images) met Aarons at his home and bought his entire boxed-up archive, containing more than half a million photographs. Slim went on to publish a number of notable books including "Once Upon a Time" (2003), "A Place in the Sun" (2005), and "Poolside with Slim Aarons" (2007). These publications have continued to inspire photographers and designers, offering a timeless glimpse into a bygone era of elegance and leisure. This period also allowed him to witness the renewed interest in his work before he died on May 30, 2006 (aged 89).


Slim Aarons promoting his book "Once Upon A Time" (2004)

Throughout his adulthood, Aarons claimed to have been both orphaned as a child and to know nothing of his parent's lives. It was not until after his death that his widow, daughter and close friends got to learn about his early ghetto years, his mother's mental health issues, his distant father, and his brother Harry, who had committed suicide. There followed speculation that revealing his true origins may have restricted access to the privileged world that he captured; that he wouldn't have been "one of them".

No matter what his motives or methodology, Slim Aarons’ work is not just a collection of photographs, but a historical archive of mid-20th century high society. His images tell stories of a time when elegance and leisure were paramount, offering a timeless reflection of beauty, luxury, and the art of living well.

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