Photography jobs

Slim Aarons’ photography is a window into another time

Considering all the articles I’ve written and all the speeches and interviews I’ve given about the life and work of Slim Aarons, you’d have thought the photographer and I were best friends. You would be wrong. The truth is Slim never cared much about me and didn’t like that I was editor of Travel + Leisure and City & Country—two magazines to which he was closely linked. I thought he had incredible talent, but I also saw him as arrogant, irritable, and, at times, just plain impossible.

For those of you who need an introduction or, at the very least, a reminder: George A. Aarons, known as Slim (he was tall and slender), was, from the 1950s to the end of the 1950s 70, the self-proclaimed photographer and leader of what was then called “high society”. Today, his name is synonymous with images that embody the life of those richest and most glamorous decades. Less well known is the fact that he was also an accomplished travel photographer and some of his most iconic photographs were taken for this magazine.

Poolside scenes at the Punta Tragara Hotel, photographed by Slim Aarons

Left to right: In this August 1974 photo, Aarons caught a swimmer admiring the view at the Punta Tragara Hotel on the Italian island of Capri; another scene by the swimming pool of the Punta Tragara hotel. | Credit: Slim Aarons/Getty Images

Slim was born to Yiddish-speaking immigrant parents on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and his childhood years are said to have been marked by poverty and his mother’s mental illness. Later, Slim would claim he was an orphan and was raised in New Hampshire; his true roots remained hidden throughout his adult life.

His career took off at Holidays, America’s premier travel magazine, thanks to its mentor, legendary art director Frank Zachary. In 1971, when Frank moved to Travel + Leisure, Slim has become a frequent contributor. The following year, when Frank was named editor of City & Country, Slim followed again and continued to shoot for that title for another three decades.

Slim’s world was unashamedly that of the wealthy, wherever they were and whatever they did. He had access to riches that others could only dream of – their castles, palaces, ski lodges, members-only clubs and yachts. When Slim came to call, the doors that were usually closed were thrown open. His charm could be irresistible and he was smart enough to always show his subjects at their best.

He didn’t start out as a society photographer. He first covered World War II for Yank and stars and stripes magazines, and saw his share of combat in the process. At the end of the war, he helped Life for a moment; his beat was Hollywood. When Slim met Frank, things got better. The timing was perfect: he had had enough of difficulties, and of Hollywood too. His mantra became “photographing attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places”.

I met Slim in 1968, when I started working as a lowly researcher at Holidays, and checked his captions and text, which were usually written by the freelance assistant who had accompanied him on the assignment. As a presence, Slim was hard to ignore. He never had a date; he just passed, and when he did, he stole all the oxygen in the room.

As I wrote in Holidays, my book on the history of publication: “At 6 feet he sported a perpetual tan and always wore a button-up oxford shirt and a navy blue blazer with the sleeves rolled up. Other photographers were far more tolerable and no less talented in their own way. But Slim ruled and he knew it.

A crowd of chic bathers on a beach in St Tropez, photographed by Slim Aarons circa 1971

In August 1971, Aarons flew to Saint-Tropez, France to photograph the beach swing scene for T+L. | Credit: Slim Aarons/Getty Images

In 1971, Caskie Stinnett, who had been editor of Holidays in the late ’60s, became editor of T+L, and brought me and Frank Zachary with him. Where Frank went, Slim followed. There were others in Frank’s stable, but Slim was the chosen one, the photographer who got the juiciest assignments after Baron This and Duchess That in their various playgrounds around the world.

When Slim began his career as a travel photographer, he usually followed a writer who had already traveled on assignment, so his images could reflect the story. Eventually, as his confidence and reputation grew, he convinced Frank to let him go just about anywhere he wanted, which led him to many of the iconic destinations he became famous for: Acapulco, Saint-Tropez , Capri, the Caribbean. Invariably there was a beach covered in bikini-clad beauties or a pool surrounded by sunbathers. Today it doesn’t seem particularly new, but back then it was mind-blowing.

It was when Slim was tasked with filming places off his usual radar that he returned with some of his most amazing work, such as Venice, Sicily or Malaysia. I’m not sure Slim even realized how awesome he could be when he wasn’t focusing on an heiress in a kaftan on a lounge chair. In fact, my all-time favorite photo of Slim is his image of a huge reclining Buddha in Myanmar (then Burma). A closer look reveals, almost in miniature, a man sweeping the statue with a broom. The effect is breathtaking.

A worker cleaning a Buddha in a temple in Myanmar, circa 1971

Aarons shot this temple worker cleaning the 180-foot-long Shwethalyaung Buddha in Bago, Myanmar in February 1971. | Credit: Slim Aarons/Getty Images

In 1975, Stinnett announced his retirement, and something unexpected happened: I was named editor of T+L. This was not good news for Slim. On the one hand, I was a woman. On the other hand, I was inexperienced. Worse, I was asked to bring in new talent. This didn’t mean that Slim had no more room at the magazine, only that he had to share the wealth – as well as the wealthy – with other photographers in waiting. Needless to say, Slim was not good at sharing.

Fortunately, Frank was waiting with open arms at City & Country, where their long and happy collaboration lasted until Frank’s retirement in 1991. There was much speculation as to who would succeed Frank. The first was a mistake: hired and fired in less than a year. Then came a second: me.

We tried to make it work. For my first issue, in October 1991, I gave Slim a story about the exclusive community of Millbrook in Dutchess County, New York. We gave it eight pages, more than anyone else in the issue. It wasn’t enough. One day he came to the office, stopped at my door, and said in a booming voice that everyone could hear, “I quit! To which I replied, “Slim, you can’t quit, you’re not an employee.”

View of Venice from the island of Murano, taken by Slim Aarons in 1972

The lagoon of Venice seen from the island of Murano, captured by Aarons for T+L in 1972. In the foreground is a reproduction of the Barovier cup, which was made on the island in the 15th century. | Credit: Slim Aarons/Getty Images

Thus the uneasy alliance between publisher and photographer came to an end. The irony is that I probably have as much regard for Slim Aarons’ work as ever, maybe more.

I remember preparing an interview on Slim in the dining room of my apartment several years ago. I placed problems of Holidays, Travel + Leisure, and City & Country spread his stories on the table and put a stack of his books, including his first, A Wonderful Moment, which now sells for up to $2,000 on eBay.

When my editor arrived, he looked at the table and said, “Pamela, for someone who didn’t really like this guy, you sure have a lot of him in your life.”

A version of this story first appeared in the August 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the title In a separate class.