Saturated Mediterranean beaches. Exiled Russian aristocrats. Senators’ wives. Roman temples. Palm Beach mansions. Striped umbrellas, tiaras, and Cuban cigars. These are, of course, only a small portion of what Slim Aarons documented during his decades-long career.
Aarons, whose work has had a resurgence since the Instagram age, is best remembered for his portraiture of high society spanning across both sides of the Atlantic. From Beverly Hills to Zermatt, Aarons gave the world a peek into Mt. Olympus, a jetset world full of privilege, sun tans, and 24-karat gold.
Aarons created a singular vision of what it meant to not just be a part of high society, but to appreciate it wholly. Whether he was shooting a deposed prince or a bathing beauty, every image has a pristine point of view that doesn’t exactly let you into the world, but permits you to be a voyeur along with him. If anything, Slim Aarons was an anthropologist who saw the cracks in the marble of high society and used his photography to preserve it while he still could.
Whether he was on the ski slopes or in someone’s home, he was able to capture the moments that made life worth living: the cocktail hour, the pool splashing, the dogs on leashes, and the pearl necklaces paired with a bikini. He wasn’t a passive onlooker of how the other half lived – he immersed himself into this world and appreciated it for what it was. It was, in some ways, a love letter to the sweetness life had to offer – you just had to be born into it or lucky enough to be in its orbit.
Was there ever a more successful arriviste in history?
An Army Man With a Camera
One would think a man like Slim Aarons must have been born into privilege, but that wasn’t the case. Born in 1916, George Allen Aarons (as he was originally known) was raised by his grandparents in New Hampshire. At 18, he enlisted in the Army as an excuse to see the world got a job in the service’s film department dipping film into developing solution for hours on end.
While not a particularly glamorous role, his natural curiosity eventually led him to a role as West Point’s staff photographer.
When a director came to West Point, looking to cast for a film during the war efforts of the 1940s, there was Aarons to greet Frank Capra. Days later, Capra hired Aarons as a foreign correspondent for a military newspaper called Yank and put him on a flight to London.
As war closed in around Europe, Aarons began his photojournalism career documenting the gruesome realities of World War II and German concentration camps for publications like Life.
After the war, Aarons turned his charm and his lens toward more relaxing endeavors for magazine assignments. Polo matches in Beverly Hills and Hollywood starlets giggling into their Martinis were about as far away from war as one could get. He began working for one of the seminal travel magazines of the time, Holiday. It was here that the Slim Aarons style of photography – that relaxed view of time, deadlines, and responsibilities – really began to take shape.
For nearly four decades, Aarons spent his time on assignment creating a glamorous portrayal of the world through his lens. Whether it was a titled European or a Hollywood producer, Aarons was able to capture not just the personality of his subject, but what his subject represented to the everyday viewer.
La Dolce Vita and Its Legacy
It’s hard to not overstate the influence that Slim Aarons had on the perception of wealth and high society during his years as a photographer. Though it may be apocryphal, it’s said that Aarons described his work as photographing “attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places.”
And that’s exactly why he is so loved today.
Aarons photography is often imitated but never replicated perfectly on social media today. Aarons told stories through his work. His legacy is highlighting an appreciation for the finer things and integrating that philosophy into everyday living. Or, more simply, la dolce vita.
Living Like Slim Aarons
Holiday: The Best Travel Magazine That Ever Was
Photographing for Holiday was a defining moment for both Slim Aarons and the magazine. While I recommend searching eBay for old copies of the magazine itself, this book is a great way to introduce yourself to the brand and better understand the cultural landscape that Aarons found himself in during his tenure at the publication.
ISSIMO Il Pellicano Ashtray
Aarons had a long relationship with the Il Pellicano hotel and the family of ISSIMO’s founder Marie-Louise Scio. This ashtray should be on anyone’s table who wants to inject a bit of Italian design into their homes, even if you’re not a smoker.
Meriggi Crewneck Sweaters
Meriggi’s knitwear is perfectly crafted with a worn-in feel and a refined finish on the hem and collar. In three neutral colors, it won’t clash with anything when you pack it for your next trip sailing the Med.
The original. The classic. This is the one pair of sunglasses you can pack for any occasion. The 649s never go out of style and are as timeless as a Slim Aarons print itself.
Rowing Blazers Slim Aarons Tee
For a bit more upfront appreciation of the photographer’s work, one can opt for a shirt from collab giant Rowing Blazers. Digitally printed on a heavy cotton tee, this shirt depicts a moment in time at the 1955 Henley Royal Regatta.
Tombolo Le Sirenuse Cabana Shirt
Many of Tombolo’s shirts perfect the balance of play and refinement that is characteristic of Aarons’s work, and the Cabana shirt made in partnership with famous Positano hotel Le Sirenuse is the pinnacle of this philosophy.
Slim Aarons Signed Copy of A Wonderful Time
If you have the desire to own a piece of history (and a heavy chunk of cash you’re looking to spend on said history), then you can buy a 1974 collection of photography that was curated and signed by Slim Aarons himself.
Leica D-LUX 7 Camera
Aarons was known to favor his Leica, and the brand marries modern and vintage in its D-Lux 7 Line. Taking stylistic notes from its past models, the hardware is all modern with a 17 megapixel 4/3 sensor, a high-performance zoom lens, and 4K photo and video capture.
Dandy Del Mar Brisa Linen Shirt
Dandy Del Mar designs luxury clothes fit for maximizing leisure. The Brisa linen shirt is almost a pared-down guayabera that would look quite handsome under a blazer while staying in the French Riviera.
Sonic Editions Print
I recently began renting an office in a nearby town and one of the first items I hung on the wall was this print by Slim Aarons. I find it captivating and I often daydream of my own meals in Capri when a deadline is approaching or I’m on a boring call. At its core, Aarons’s work is escapism and we can all use a bit of that from time to time.