Once upon a time, style mattered. If you watch classic movies starring Humphrey Bogart, Sean Connery, or Paul Newman, you’ll notice that those guys dressed for dinner. Surfing was no exception then, either. Go back and look at some of the Surfer magazine polls from the early 1960s. You’ll see Pat Curren, Hobie Alter, and Mike Doyle all in suits and ties. There’s even a photo that exists of Butch Van Artsdalen in a white dinner jacket.
We used to take cues from those movies, and our language of style—crisp haircuts, cool attitude—conveyed how we felt about ourselves. In the middle of the twentieth century, one wouldn’t dream of going out in sweats and a baseball cap unless he or she was headed for batting practice. And somewhere in that era, there’s a blueprint for a species of human called a professional photographer. It was a dream job, a glamour profession—almost on par with Formula 1 drivers or military test pilots. Photographers were expected to be dashing and charming, sure, but one of the key structural components would have been to be the person having the most fun. Slim Aarons’ name—hell, his signature—is on that blueprint.
Aarons was tall, handsome, and charismatic. He had A-list Hollywood friends and the easy grace that allowed him to traverse seemingly any social barrier. He had beautiful women. He earned a Purple Heart in action as an Army photojournalist. He then built his name photographing the beautiful people on the French Riviera, up at Cortina d’Ampezzo or on the Isle of Capri, with unselfconscious grace. His photography evokes a feeling that, no matter what you’ve done, your accomplishments will seem a little dimmer when compared to Slim Aarons’ life.
The conditions and pressures that created this kind of talent don’t exist anymore. Surviving the incredibly violent and sustained effort of World War II was transformative, and, for anyone lucky enough to return, America was a different place. It was optimistic and booming. Movies and the media processed the war by way of double features and bestsellers. Naval officers and Army generals went into politics. After the war, it seemed, the little guy stood a chance. There was a sense that anything could happen.
“In World War II,” wrote journalist and editor David Friend after Aarons’ passing in 2006, “he had been wounded at Anzio, earning a Purple Heart. He had lost many friends—and a twin brother, Peter—during the conflict. And although Aarons had gone on to become a pioneering chronicler of high society for magazines such as LIFE, Holiday, and Town & Country, he was, at heart, a working grunt who had begun his career in the 1940s as an Army photographer in Europe and North Africa for Yank magazine. His longtime editor and neighbor, Frank Zachary, would recall that Aarons’ wartime injuries and experiences on the battlefield eventually led him to change career paths. Aarons told Zachary, ‘No more war for me. I’m only going to shoot pictures of beautiful people doing beautiful things in beautiful places.’”
Aarons came back from the European Theater with solid camera skills and a good reputation for getting the shot. But his relationship to conflict, and everything it entailed, could be summed up in his answer to Robert Capa’s request to join him in covering the Korean War. Aarons said the only beachhead he was interested in had better have a beautiful blonde sitting on the sand.
So, you want to make photographs like Slim Aarons? Let’s start with composition. His portraits are generally symmetrical. Aarons’ most famous images contain pools, boats, or cars centered with beautiful women arranged in the foreground or people posed informally in the middle of the frame. Converging lines all lead to the center of the image. The photographs are carefully arranged to look spontaneous, and the effect has a kind of magic—perfectly imperfect.
Another ingredient of Aarons’ approach: Everyone liked him. He had an easy rapport with stars, gangsters, presidents, and billionaires. Alfred Hitchcock modeled Jimmy Stewart’s character as the injured photographer in 1954’s Rear Window on Aarons, who also served as a consultant on the set to ensure the apartment and the view out the window matched those of his own digs. When Stewart was once approached by an autograph hunter, he laughed and said, “No, I’m Slim Aarons.”
A lot has been said about Aarons’ laidback technique, meaning his reluctance to use artificial light or employ hair and makeup artists on his photo shoots. The general mythology is that his bright, sun-drenched photographs look the way they do because of some miracle of timing. So be it. While good timing doesn’t hurt, one thing Aarons consistently did throughout his career was make photography as simple as possible. His pictures are lit with no hard highlights or telltale shadows. The overall effect entirely removes technique from the equation, and viewers find themselves not looking at a photograph, but simply enjoying details from another time and place, and through artifacts like a 1960s w.a.v.e. Set fin box sporting a Greenough Stage 4 visible in a Laguna Beach landscape, or the curious monocle on the right eye of Renata Boeck in a portrait from 1964. These cultural totems live on in the amber of Aarons’ photographs.
And, of course, you’d have to shoot Kodachrome. In the golden era of American publishing, Kodachrome was the preferred film for magazine work. Unlike the professional films then in wide use, like Ektachrome and later Fujichrome, which could be developed easily and anywhere, the Kodachrome K-14 process was so complicated that processing was included in the cost of the film. It consisted of 17 separate actions, including re-exposure steps where the film was already exposed during development, from different sides, first to red and then blue light. At the time, there were only two Kodak labs in the United States, which could add days to your workflow when compared to the two-hour Ektachrome E-6 process. Waiting for film to come back could be harrowing. When you shot Kodachrome, you had to nail it. That’s all there was to it. There were no second chances.
In spite of the logistical complications, Kodachrome set the standard. The film produced gorgeous, saturated color with a wide contrast gamut able to hold highlight detail while retaining clean, open shadows. Kodachrome was so sharp that reproductions were often mistaken for a much larger format. Big cameras, like the unwieldy 4-by-5-inch view cameras favored by Ansel Adams or the 6-by-6-centimeter square-format Hasselblads used by Richard Avedon for fashion work, produced wonderful images, but the gear was heavy and required a tripod for optimum results. Aarons used 35-millimeter cameras—Leicas at first, then Nikons—loaded with Kodachrome. This allowed his unfussy approach to look as polished and brilliant as a well-lit motion film. It’s fitting that production of his favorite film halted shortly after his passing.
Environmental portraiture as a specialty seems simple—no studio to manage, no complex lighting systems—but in practice it’s a delicate power balance. Aarons mastered it on many levels, from contrast and composition to the delicate matter of being adored by his subjects. Everything in his work was integral to the idea that Aarons was an ally—safe, likable, one of them—allowing his subjects to reveal their true selves while blending with their environments into a perfectly made confection. And it was a confection, sensual and sweet. Aarons photographed ancestral palaces, rockers, and the crème of Hollywood in a rich, golden light we mortals will only ever see in magazines and books.
“Aarons’s pictures were more than old-fashioned portraits of modern rich people,” wrote Evgenia Peretz in a 2003 profile of Aarons in Vanity Fair. “They made modern rich people sexy. His photos…had the kind of effortless fabulousness that told viewers: Keep dreaming.”
Aarons brought the same classic sense of color and composition to the beach when he photographed surfers. On the rocks in Laguna, in the water at Montauk Point, or at the base of the Pyrenees at Biarritz, surf conditions never seem to matter as much as their proximity to a five-star hotel.
Surfing has a long and conflicted relationship with wealth. From Silicon Valley tech moguls to the heirs and heiresses of venerable American fortunes, surfboards have symbolically represented the values the upper crust loves to exhibit but rarely commits to. There are exceptions, of course, but for every Bunker Spreckels or Davey Hilton there are thousands of well-heeled surfboard owners who can’t peg an overhead reefbreak takeoff. Surfing takes dedication and requires sacrifice. In Aarons’ surf pictures you won’t see any banged-up boards, skinned knees, or old pickup trucks. His surf shots are all golden; the people are young and strong. Nothing wrong with this, of course—but it serves to illustrate Aarons’ maxim: Attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places.Photography like this can’t be done with a straight face anymore; it’s too innocent, too revealing.
Times have changed. The big-picture magazines like LIFE are gone. Everyone wants their 15 minutes, and they want it right now. The very idea of coming up through the ranks has disappeared in a swirling sea of plastic digital cameras, instant gratification, and tweets. But if you ever want to go back to when style really mattered, take a look at a Slim Aarons print.