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Slim Aarons as curated by DK Johnston and Getty Images Gallery

Slim Aarons as curated by DK Johnston and Getty Images Gallery will debut a bespoke penthouse collection within the three floors atop the Quin (101 West 57th Street) open for a very special evening on Thursday, April 12 from 7-9pm.

Aarons was born and raised in New York City. He joined the armed forces in 1935, aged 18, and took advantage of the opportunity it afforded to train as a photographer. He served as a wartime combat photographer – a rough and rapid introduction not only to human violence, but also to civilian photojournalists, both European and American. He was wounded, awarded a purple heart for bravery.

The war also gave Aarons his first commercial outlet, in the US army’s Yanks magazine. It sent him out to cover the north Africa campaign: he witnessed the fall of Tobruk and, later, the liberation of Rome from the fascists. He fell in love with Italy’s cities, landscapes and people, and within five years of the war ending, moved to Rome to open a bureau for Life magazine.

Based in a hotel on the Via Veneto, he doorstepped, and then crossed into, the film world of such directors as Fellini and Antonioni, and actors like Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren and Claudia Cardinale. Asked about the contrast between shooting soldiers and shooting stars, Aarons said he “let it be known that the only beach I was interested in was one decorated with beautiful, semi-nude girls tanning in the tranquil sun”.

So, instead of taking up a commission to cover the Korean war in 1951, he married Lorita Dewart, a colleague from Life, and headed back to the west coast. There he moved definitively from documentary to celebrity photography, trading black-and-white 35mm for large-format colour portraits. Based in Beverly Hills, he kept up with the jet-setters by making regular excursions to the French riviera, the Greek and Italian islands

His employers were a roll-call of just about every famous society and leisure journal of the period, among them Holiday, Town and Country, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Travel & Leisure and, of course, Life. He supplied them with a regular stream of marquises and princesses, ladies and hostesses, horse shows and luxury hotels, jazz musicians and politicians, and – above all – private pools, polo-players, playboys and girls.

Aarons was thus ahead of his time in creating the cult of celebrity. Christopher Sweet, the editor of his most recent publications, has suggested that “celebrity was more discrete at that point; it’s a different, richer, portrait of a social world”, but it is possible that Aarons was not in the least naive, indeed that he was perfectly aware of what might lie beneath the impeccably sleek surfaces of his subjects. He never favoured studio shots, preferring to use the light of the Mediterranean, Caribbean or Californian sun, shooting most of his subjects out of doors, planted before their fake Ionian temples or on their best yachts.

Ironic or not, Aarons lived long enough to see much of his earlier work creep back into vogue. What once resembled straight marketing, if not advertising, is now acceptable editorial material. After one coffee-table book, A Wonderful Time: an Intimate Portrait of the Good Life (1974), he waited until 2003 for his next, Once Upon a Time; it was followed in 2005 by A Place in the Sun. Having taken an iconic portrait of Ann Getty, in 1997 he consigned his massive collection to the Getty Foundation.

Aarons will be best remembered for his portraits of stars, from Truman Capote and Gore Vidal to Louis Armstrong, President Kennedy and almost all the Hollywood greats of his period. The list of his friends walks straight off the screen – Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh. He actually appeared in four films in the 1960s, and when he fluffed his lines he took pictures of Clark Gable, Van Heflin and James Stewart having a laugh at his expense.

Stewart’s gumshoe character in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller, Rear Window, was meant to be based on Aarons, and the set a replica of his apartment. Lorita and their daughter, Mary, survive him.

· George Allen ‘Slim’ Aarons, photographer, born October 29 1916; died May 30 2006

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