Mr. Americana: The Story of Slim
It's hard to pinpoint what I love most about Slim Aarons's photography. The style, the architecture, the subject balance and/or symmetry, the rich color, the emotion, the midcentury time period... these qualities are just the beginning of a loooong list.
Images aside, Slim Aarons himself is someone to admire. He got his start in photography after enlisting in the army in the 1940s. His starting position was a "hypo dipper," AKA the person responsible for bathing developing prints in chemicals. Later, he received a promotion: photographing military maneuvers at West Point. While there, he met a famous Hollywood director by the name of Frank Capra. Capra traveled to West Point seeking a photographer for the new military newspaper, "Yank," and Aarons was the perfect fit. In no time, Aarons was on the frontlines documenting war-torn Italy. In fact, Slim Aarons received a Purple Heart after getting wounded by German soldiers while saving the life of fellow photographer, Carl Mydans.
Upon returning from the war, Aarons reasonably sought a different subject matter to photograph... "attractive people in attractive places doing attractive things,” Aarons described. Elegance became Aarons's new area of expertise. Working with Life, Harper's Bazaar, and Holiday Magazine, Aarons helped embark a new style of photography: "environmental." Frank Zachary took over Holiday Magazine in 1951 and encouraged Aarons's new style. "Subjects would be seen in their milieus —their rooms, their gardens, with their books and their dogs,” Zachary advised.
Slim's success grew exponentially. His likable attitude and keen eye made Aarons the favorite amongst magazine editors, socialites, celebrities, presidents, and royals. However, Slim Aarons's fan base didn't stop there. His photographs were adored by the general public and influenced consumer buying habits too. Khakis were all the rage after Peter Pulitzer wore a pair in one of Aarons's shots, C.Z. Guest's swimming pool was recreated across the country after her photoshoot, and America's taste-level was all around increased after exposure to the glamorous lives depicted in Slim Aarons's photography.
Despite the inconceivable elegance captured in each shot, what's most magical to me about Slim Aarons's work is that it's purely serendipitous. He didn't force a pose, rush a moment, or request external styling. “I didn’t do fashion. I did the people in their clothes that became the fashion,” Aarons recalled.
Of course, this natural yet unattainable luxury also caused backlash. The evidence of immense wealth, privilege, and lack of diversity fueled criticism, and plausibly so. Even today, during a time of (long overdue) social recalibration, is it appropriate to admire the elitists Slim Aarons captured?
The broad answer is no. And I think fans of Slim Aarons would agree. What is admirable is the palpable intimacy possessed in each photograph. With one look, you're whisked away to the French Riviera, invited to a Palm Springs pool party, or vacationing in vibrant villas tucked away on private estates. The photographs serve not to exclude, but to include.
Slim Aarons froze time with the shutter of a lens, and he welcomed others into his world upon pressing pause. This bygone era of aesthetic sophistication will forever be my inspiration, evident in the products featured on Swells of Splendor.
For more Slim Aarons swooning, see some of his extensive portfolio here.
Source: "Postcards from Paradise" by Evgenia Peretz - January 27, 2014