Art News: Why Can't Slim Aarons Get Any Respect?

By David Schonauer   Wednesday October 12, 2016

Slim Aarons, who would have turned 100 this month, was the peerless chronicler of the wealthy at home and at play through the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. His finely composed images of jet setters, socialites and celebrities, shot primarily for Town & Country magazine, offer unique view of society’s upper strata and a world of glamour that was coming to an end. A selection of his work is featured in the new book Slim Aarons: Women  (Abrams), while New York City’s Staley-Wise Gallery  celebrates Aarons's career with  an exhibition opening on October 27 and running through November 26.

Meanwhile, Patricia Bosworth, author of an acclaimed biography of Diane Arbus, has penned a tribute  to Aarons in the October issue of Town & Country. Aarons, she notes, roamed the world to photograph the rich and privileged in their “hitherto impenetrable enclaves” in places like Newport, Rhode Island and Capri. In doing so, Bosworth declares, he was a first-hand witness to the merging of society and celebrity — an “electric, uneasy mix,” she notes, that “currently flashes across our television screens, the covers of our magazines, and the feeds of our social media accounts.”

Why then, she asks, can't Aarons get any respect from the art world?

“For all the interest in his subject matter and, increasingly, in his life, there hasn't been a serious critical or scholarly assessment of Aarons's work,” writes Bosworth.

Aarons, who died in 2006, did not spring from the wealthy class. Born George Allen Aarons, he grew up in Manhattan and at 18 enlisted in the US Army. He ended up in the press corp, starting in the darkroom. He later served as a combat photographer in World War II, stationed in North Africa and Rome. 

“Rome was really his favorite spot,” noted Aarons’s daughter Mary recently at the Huffington Post. “At one point he also went to London and Paris, and then all throughout Europe. His letters remind me very much of that film The English Patient. The soldiers were in some beautiful places, but some pretty horrid things were going on around them.”

After the war he moved to California and became a celebrity photographer, shooting for Life, Town & Country, Holiday and other magazines. “My father became familiar with being a sort of a well traveled, cultured guy,” notes Mary Aarons. “He had access to the best of the best. He was exposed to a lifestyle, and he realized there was a world beyond New York City and the Northeast.”

“[H]e was a classic outsider looking in, and as such he idealized the rich,” notes the Staley-Wise Gallery. “The women are beautiful and exquisitely dressed, the men handsome and poised.”

The new book focuses on the women — including Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy, Diana Vreeland, and Marilyn Monroe — whose elegance, charm, and glamour animated his work.

Why have his photographs remains so popular? “I think the  mis en place  and settings just look good,” says Mary Aarons. “The color looks good and the people look good. For the most part the pictures don’t look dated. The era he shot in is popular once again. He photographed people when they were looking their best.”

Photographer Bruce Weber told Bosworth that Aarons “really changed the way we looked at old-school elegance and gave it its own vocabulary.” Photographer Douglas Friedman added, "Slim was an anthropologist with his camera. He documented an entire era.”

If that is the case, wonders Bosworth, why aren't his photos in more private collections or museums?

One possible answer offered by an art expert is that Aarons's original collectors were his subjects — and they have aged out of the market. Bosworth doesn’t buy it. “I would say it's because his work is too popular and commercial, a turnoff for most museum curators,” she writes. “This would explain why there are no Aarons images hanging at MoMA or the International Center for Photography.” 


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