Portraits from a Lost Time: Slim Aarons’ Never-Seen Photographs
FOTO and Sunset present long-forgotten pictures that capture the essence of a life at ease—and the endless summer of our dreams
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A Look at a Legend
Most of us cherish a dream of an ideal getaway. Sailboats anchored off of a white-sand beach; a road trip down the Oregon Coast
; warm days and cool nights beside a rippling northern lake. Whatever the landscape, the feel of the dream is the same: a sense of abiding calm. During the middle part of the 20th-century, in pictures taken around the globe, photographer George "Slim" Aarons crafted pictures steeped in that timeless sensibility. Aarons himself said that his pictures chronicled "attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places," a winning formula if ever there was one. Here, FOTO presents newly discovered, previously unseen Slim Aarons pictures taken between 1957 and 1980. Released by the Getty Images Gallery [Getty Images is the parent company of FOTO], these photos show us, as if for the first time, the endless summer of our dreams.
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"You can be a housewife in Paramus or a mechanic in Topeka," celebrated designer Jonathan Adler told FOTO, "but the second you look at a Slim Aarons photo you feel like a starlet. Whenever I'm decorating a room, I like to feature a Slim Aarons photograph as a reminder to be bold, be eccentric, and live life to the fullest." For his own part, Aarons (1916 – 2006) once said that having seen the worst that humanity could offer while serving as a combat photographer in World War II, he was determined to "walk on the sunny side of the street" for the rest of his career. It was under that warm, forgiving sun that Aarons created his legacy — pictures, like this one of a young woman in Bermuda in 1957, that offered glimpses of a world at-once elemental and elegant, adventurous and subdued.
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Made in the Shade
Born in New York City, Aarons was orphaned early and grew up on his grandparents' New Hampshire farm. Much of what he learned there — planning, perseverance, the value of doing a job well — stayed with him his entire life. The people and places he chronicled in his photos might have represented the essence of what used to be called the "leisure class," but Aarons himself never shied from a hard day's work. “Aarons is one of my heroes," says Jonathan Adler, enough of an admirer, in fact, that he sells Aaron photos on his eponymous site. As he told FOTO: "The 'effortless' glamour in his work takes a lot of effort. Aarons starts with a foundation of formal rigor — great composition, fab color, graphic clarity — and then adds a kapow of high-voltage style." All of those elements mesh perfectly in this shot of guests at a party in Marbella, Spain, in 1967.
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Heaven from Above
Frank Zachary, an acclaimed photo editor, creative director, and a longtime friend of the photographer once wrote that Aarons' pictures "are the work of a consummate artist in the guise of a photojournalist." Zachary went on to say that, "It is their impeccable and seemingly artless composition that makes Slim's photographs so easy to enjoy and appreciate," traits easily seen in this view of people swimming off an island in the Bahamas in 1964.
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The Good Life
Perhaps best known today for documenting the private lives of the well-to-do "without animus or adulation" (as Frank Zachary put it), Aarons also spent time in that least-private of worlds: Hollywood. There he photographed legends like Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, and Jimmy Stewart. In fact, Stewart and Aarons were close friends; Alfred Hitchcock reportedly based Stewart's character (a photographer) in Rear Window on Aarons. In his introduction to Aarons' 2003 book, Once Upon a Time, Zachary tipped to Aarons’ determination to capture the good life when he wrote that his frequent collaborator's pictures "have the glamour and appeal of the movies but with a vital difference; he projects fantasy that is based on reality — the good life that exists beyond the foxhole and battlefield."
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Beyond admiring the preparation and skill required to craft a picture like this 1959 portrait of people snorkeling in Malta, it's impossible to discount the seductive power of the sensibility at play in virtually all of Slim Aarons' pictures. Here, after all, is an image that distills not just a time or a place, but a way of being: an experience of clear water, dappled sunlight, carefree days — and all the time in the world to soak it all in.
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Pictures like this, featuring guests relaxing by a pool at a villa in Jamaica in 1971, convey intimacy and exclusivity in equal measure, and have a great appeal for Adler. "I love the spirit of fantasy and glamour in all of his photos,” Adler told FOTO, addressing why so many of Aarons’ photos have stood the test of time. “And that's just what I strive to achieve in my own work. I want people to buy my stuff and feel like they're living in a Slim Aarons picture." As the New York Times wrote in its June 2006 obituary of Aarons, his photographs in magazines like Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, and LIFE illustrated the "rarefied universe" that Noël Coward and Truman Capote had celebrated in words. And yet, according to a 2003 profile in Vanity Fair, Aarons characterized himself as a "simple farm boy … and never made a big thing about creating high art." In part, as a result of his experience in the war — when mobility could spell the difference between life and death — Aarons traveled light. Briefings with his pal Frank Zachary, before Aarons headed off on an assignment, reportedly often ended with the admonition, "Slim, bring back the snaps and make sure it doesn't look like Brooklyn."
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The Kings of Hollywood
Among Aarons’ most iconic photos is this celebrated picture from 1957 known as "The Kings of Hollywood," featuring four of the movies' greatest male stars — Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Van Heflin, and Jimmy Stewart —in white tie and tails, laughing together at a party. The punch line, it turns out, was Aarons himself. Gable was regaling his friends with tales of what an awful actor Aarons was, having once seen the photographer struggle with a small part in a film that starred Gable and Sophie Loren. "Over and above their technical virtuosity," Zachary once noted, "Slim's photographs are profoundly human."
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Aarons retired in the early 1990s, when he was about 70 years old, but still regularly sold his photos to magazines and other outlets. A number of his pictures — among them, “The Kings of Hollywood” — had, over time, evolved into a kind of visual shorthand for old-school style and was always in demand. This never-seen picture, made the same year as “The Kings of Hollywood,” shows two men helping a woman off a fishing boat in the Bahamas, and captures that same old-world grace. Aarons, who was awarded a Purple Heart after being wounded in WWII, once said that if combat taught him anything, it was that the only beach worth landing on was "decorated with beautiful, seminude girls tanning in a tranquil sun." Today, when the rich and famous sometimes seem more desperate for attention than the rest of us, Aarons' pictures are a reminder that attractive people once spent their days and nights quietly and discreetly doing attractive things in attractive places. Luckily, Slim Aarons was there to capture it all — a lost world that, all these years later, still shapes and colors our dreams. For more never-seen Slim Aarons photos, visit FOTO.