Slim Arons, the photographer who captured the high society in the game

Wrote Oscar Holland, CNN

Slim Arons has built a career by documenting the lives of the rich and beautiful.

Working for publications such as Town and Country, Harper’s Bazaar, and Life Magazine, the late photographer has spent five decades photographing the elite and socialites in incredibly glamorous ways. Whether it’s resting in Italian villas, boating off the coast of Monaco, or hunting foxes in the English countryside, his globetrotting is a symbol of high society – and old-fashioned meaning.

But according to the author of a new book on Aaron’s work, the photographer’s intention was not to celebrate or criticize the riches he encountered. His journalistic curiosity about how the most privileged people in the world live was driven by him, says Shawn Waldron, who co-wrote “Slim Arons: Style.”

“He was a journalist,” Waldron said by phone from New York. “You have to think that many of these pictures were made in assignments. He was sent somewhere to record what was happening in that particular place.”

Haares Noni Phipps was photographed with friends in Bearetz, France in 1960.

Haares Noni Phipps was photographed with friends in Bearetz, France in 1960. Credit: Slim Arrows / Getty Images

Photo agency Getty Images acquired the entire Arroyo archive in 1997, a few years after his retirement. Waldron, who also works as Getty Curator, said that of the estimated 750,000 images, only 6,000 have been digitized so far.

At the time of purchase, Aaron’s was “somehow forgotten” and “out of a lot of grace,” Waldron added. But now, almost 15 years after his death, experts and audiences are reconsidering and redefining the huge portion of the photographer’s work. While social media gives today’s jet-setters a tight grip on how their personal lives are portrayed, his writing gives a fresh glimpse into the past.

And while Aaron moved comfortably through the most exclusive circles of society, he maintained his objectivity and was “very unfounded,” Waldron said.

“He was obviously close to some of these people,” he added. “He photographed things when they came up through society and then photographed their children decades later. These are long-term relationships … but he was a (very) fly on the wall and always kept that professional distance.

“He was constantly on the move, but he always came to his small farm in Westchester County, New York.”

Olivia Kokelin, who opened the first American discotheque, and his wife, Hawaiian singer and actress Lahina Kameha.

Olivia Kokelin, who opened the first American discotheque, and his wife, Hawaiian singer and actress Lahina Kameha. Credit: Slim Arrows / Getty Images

Style, not fashion

Aaron may have spent half a century surrounded by prosperity, but his focus on glamor may have been rooted in poverty and war experience.

Although the photographer has always claimed to be an orphan in New Hampshire, a documentary made after his death reveals that he came from an immigrant Jewish family on the Lower East Side of New York City. With his father and mother missing in a psychiatric hospital, Aaron was “passed among family members,” Waldron said.

Still using his birth name George Allen Arons, instead of his next Monica Slim, he escaped poverty by joining the army as a photographer in his early 20’s. During World War II, he honored his prowess not in polo matches or pool parties, but in military tactics, including the Allies’ unfortunate attack against Italy at the Battle of Monte Casino. The photographer later “lightened” his experience, but they were with him, Waldron said.

“A lot of people who were war photographers, either Army photographers or war reporters … were kind of stuck with it. And Slim said, ‘No, I’ve seen enough,'” Waldron said, referring to Aaron’s famous picture. In response to the advice he could document the Korean War. (“I would only do a beach if it had a blonde in it,” said the photographer.)
Clinx heir Jim Kimberly (far left, orange) talks to friends on the shores of Lake Worth, Florida in 1968.

Clinx heir Jim Kimberly (far left, orange) talks to friends on the shores of Lake Worth, Florida in 1968. Credit: Slim Arrows / Getty Images

Waldron’s new title is the latest in a series of photographer-themed books published in recent years. Focusing on the photographer’s interaction with the fashion world, his 180 photographs feature many style icons, including Gianni Versace at Lake Como and model Verusca von Lehondorf doing limbo at Acapulco.

The photos list the evolution of luxury fashion over decades, from post-war formalities to 1990s patterned ski jackets. But when Aaron did some conventional fashion shoots early in his career, he avoided genre rules. Never used by a stylist, and often carrying a camera and a little more than a tripod, he never identified the fantasy associated with fashion photography, Waldron said.

“Fashion photography is about creating a story and a typology and acting it out … but Slim didn’t want to do it,” Waldron said. “He was interested in the real person – not just what they were wearing, but what they were driving, where they would go for dinner later. It’s about all the different parts of creating personal style. That’s what he was really involved with.”

Fashion and style – here’s what Waldron described as the difference between the fleeting and the timeless. In fact, Aaron’s was not concerned with his subjects’ clothing or the day’s trends.

“I didn’t do fashion,” the photographer once said. “I’ve got people wearing their clothes which has become fashionable.”

Thin Arrows: Style“Written by Shawn Waldron and Kate Betts, and published by Abrams Books, now available.

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