Snapper in the Age of Mad Men

He thought to himself as he entered Romanoffs, a noted hangout for Hollywood’s acting elite, camera at hand, that he’d recognise those four backs anywhere. It was New Year’s Eve, 1957. One of the quartet, the dark debonair one with the signature ‘tache, swung around to face the door and spotted him; then beckoned him over with the words, ‘Hey Slim – just saw your latest movie. I wouldn’t give up taking photographs just yet old friend.’ On that, the other three also turned away from the bar to see who their colleague was joshing at. They soon broke out into broad grins when they espied the butt of the good-natured barb. Of course Slim wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to take a snap of the four men at their sartorial best for a night on the town – these four gods of Tinsel Town.

‘Let me buy you a drink fellas, down payment for that photograph I just took. You never know, if my editor likes it, you might see it in next week’s new issue. What’ll it be? The usual?’

And yes, his editor did like what he saw. It was duly published – now it’s synonymous with the name Slim Aarons. It was filmdom’s old guard in their pomp. Their lustre would shine on for a little while longer, but a new decade would see them dead, or usurped by the young Turks Slim’d go on to photograph as well. The planet was on the cusp of change and it would come roaring down on the industry, taking away the old studio system, liberalising censorship. Dressed in white tie, in the late Fifties these were the ‘Four Kings of Hollywood’, as the iconic image became known – Clark Gable (the joker), Van Heflin, Gary Cooper and James Stewart. There were none bigger in the business than these dudes.

Kings Of Hollywood

There was a reason for Gable’s jibe. Slim was always hanging around film sets, hoping for another of those magic moments that fed his career. Everyone of note knew Slim. He was one of the good guys. The stars regarded him as one of themselves and treated him as such. They knew he was discreet in an age before our own one of paparazzi and minders. He’d look out for their interests and they trusted him. Occasionally, when someone was needed for a small part at the last minute, well, as Slim was on set, he’d often volunteer. After all, that’s all he wanted to do as a kid. He’d always imagined himself in front of a camera, not behind. His bit parts were never credited, but his actorly friends would recognise him in this film or that and rib him. And he didn’t look like a total idiot, nor did he ham it up hoping to be noticed. He just said his few words and went back to the sidelines. Some of his pals reckoned he was the dead spit of his mate Jimmy Stewart – at parties, where both attended, Stewart would often fend off unwelcome attention by claiming he was just a photographer – that there was the real Jimmy S (in fact Aarons) just standing over by the wall. ‘Why don’t you go on over there and introduce yourself? Say Slim sent you.’ Slim liked Jimmy immensely, despite that.

And he was, very slim – thus the moniker. He was born George Allen Aarons in the Big Apple, in 1916. He had his start, so the story goes, when he was given a Box Brownie. He’d take to staking out stage doors, snapping the stars as they left. He’d then send the images in to their agents, ask them to get the subject to affix autograph, then return it to him. Most didn’t bother, but some did and for a while he had a nice little earner going. He so wanted to be them, to have his name up in lights, but then came the war and that changed everything. He inveigled his way into picturing the conflict for the folks back home, by way of a Life magazine contract. This carried him into contact with other greats in his artistic vocation of the period – men such as Man Ray and Cartier Bresson. Despite winning a Purple Heart for bravery, Aarons is reputed to have quipped, ‘Combat taught me one thing – the only beach worth landing on was one decorated with beautiful semi-naked girls browning themselves in a tranquil sun.’

After the war Life kept him on and he soon found his niche taking images of the rich and famous in their natural habitats, usually awash in said sunshine. He travelled everywhere, following the jet-set from Palm Springs to Monaco. He didn’t take too many shots that were posed – his were usually ‘in situ’, or made to look thus. There’s the favourite one of mine, featuring the most photogenic woman of the era. No need for a name – we all know her. She’s in black lace stockings and red, satiny night attire. There are twin beds featured – a double might suggest unhealthy connotations – and the whole room is covered in piles of her fan mail. Slim professed to love her. Many did. She had that special something – still does.

Fan Mail

It is recorded that when he’d arrive at a pool party or a beach, young women, on recognising him, would immediately remove their tops to expose their breasts. They figured if they were ‘noticed’ in one of his photos, then someone in a high place may ask certain questions and they’d be on their way. Sometimes he’d snap them, sometimes he wouldn’t.

He liked his product to convey a story. There’s the yarn about the photo he captured of a sultry Melina Mercouri, sitting at an outdoor cafe. There is a child about to pass her, pedalling on his tricycle. On showing her the image before sending it on, the Greek goddess pouted to him, ‘Does the boy really have to be in it?’ Slim’s response was that the lad was the important feature of the image, not her – for with the young fellow there was a the story. There was none with her alone

Melina Mercouri

Eventually, as the sixties wore on, the old ways gave way to the new, but the photographer moved with the times and remained relevant. If we look at his portfolio from this later era we are reminded so much of the television series about a certain advertising agency that has so captured the public’s attention for the last decade or so. We could quite easily imagine Don Draper or Joan Harris disporting themselves in Slim’s oeuvre. Sadly ‘Mad Men’ is preparing to leave our screens, but the show has bought Aarons back into vogue. New books are being published about him, exhibitions of his classics are being held. There are plentiful examples of his work online as well – do check them out.

But in this day and age the like of a Slim Aarons no longer exists – the paparazzi have changed the notion of celebrity photography forever. The ease that existed between him and those enveloped in fame belong to yesteryear – but his work is still as fresh as tomorrow.

Slim Aarons’ On-line Gallery = http://www.photographersgallery.com/by_artist.asp?id=2&per=40&i=9

More Aarons =  http://www.gettyimagesgallery.com/collections/archive/slim-aarons.aspx

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