Slim Aarons: a 1972 Christmas card story
There has been a huge Slim Aarons revival recently and that makes me very happy because for many years his style was copied by some of the world’s biggest fashion photographers without giving him any credit.
There has been an important Slim Aaronsrevival recently, including a feature documentary that is in development and that makes me very happy because for many years his style was copied by some of the world’s biggest fashion photographers without giving him any credit .
Slim was a good friend of my mother, Mary Melian. They met in Andalucia, Spain, in the late 60’s when he was on assignment for Holiday magazine in Marbella and Alfonso Hohenlohe, the founder of the Marbella Club, introduced him to my mother and Sotogrande. Sotogrande was a new resort that was being built in the province of Cadiz and already attracting interesting people escaping the bling crowds because of its rural feel and the fantastic golf and polo facilities, a first in Spain .
They both had strong personalities and very firm visual codes and bold narratives. The only small difference was that my mother only wanted to be surrounded by tones of blues, whites and greens. And Slim was the opposite. This is what my sister Victoria said of him:«When Slim asked about Sotogrande everyone told him to call Mother, because she lived there all year, knew everyone Spanish or foreign and had a beautiful house always open to guests and visits. Obviously he was thrilled to have an American with good taste introducing him to everyone and telling him who was who. He would come in on his arrival, have lunch with the family, catch up on the social scene and plan his week.
My mother and Slim instantly became good friends and she also helped Slim for many years, introducing him to the Sotogrande families: she would take him to the golf club, have a cocktail party for him, take him in the afternoons to the polo matches, introduce and introduce. If he was missing a shot, he would shoot it at our sunny and spacious home.
Today it would have been difficult to have that level of intimacy with someone from the press, at least for my family, but in the early 70’s Alfonso Hohenlohe wanted people in Marbella, and our father wanted people to pay attention to Sotogrande which he was developing. There were few magazines, and they were of much higher quality, not at all gossipy. It was about beautiful people in beautiful settings….. Not about showing off at all.
Our Mother enjoyed Slim’s company, as fellow Americans, but it was also hard work, and Slim was very much a demanding observer. Finally after many years of friendship he asked Mother if she would like a family picture as a gift and she said she would love a picture to use as the family Christmas card. That was almost the end of their friendship and Mother was in a terrible mood for a long time after it because he asked her to wear a pink shirt!
I remember she set up the shot, and he asked her to remove her white shirt and wear pink AND worst of all, to put colorful flowers in the shot… When she prepared a vase with white oleanders or something even more discreet, he made her change them for bright pink ones and rust bougainvillea! She almost had a heart attack, never, ever, did she wear pink nor put out bright bougainvillea anywhere. Slim won that battle! she looks stiff and unhappy but I think it is a really fun picture…”.
I personally remember that shoot as excruciating. In it are my 2 sisters Victoria and Sylvia, my brother Arturo and my parents. Even our dog Jackie looks grumpy and uncomfortable. We probably had to sit there FOR HOURS while Slim moved things around and reorganized the props as he always did. And we were surely told to change clothes 10 times because Slim did the styling and had to control everything.
This is what my sister Sylvia said. Sylvia styled shoots for interior design magazines for 11 years and posed for Slim 4 times:“Slim was a hyperactive and extremely hard working man. He had a clear idea in his head of what the shot would or should look like and he made it happen at any cost, working on it for hours and hours until the shot was perfect, and this is something that you can see in his photos. Nothing was left to chance, every vase, every plant, dog or person was placed and replaced and replaced until it found its place and the photo was well balanced out. I can understand his obsession with having color …one thing is what you , the person posing, likes, and another is what looks best in the magazine. He wanted color because the resulting photographs would be more appealing , festive and attractive. I have lived this myself as an interiors stylist for so many years. Photos that have color in them are more desirable and have more impact.
I remember once he shot us in front of the house for Holiday magazine when we were small kids, 1970, he wanted us on horseback and at the time there were no horse vans in the area so the horses had to be ridden all the way to the house which took 2 hours and was a huge hassle , and then he wanted the grooms that were riding those horses to pose in full “traje corto” garb with Cordobes hats and all. I have no idea where they got those outfits then because at that time in the Spain of the 60’s no village sold those because there was no money for such frivolity , but what Slim wanted Slim obtained, like the iron bench in this shot where he had me pose which was solid iron and weighed hundreds of pounds and had to be carried over the rooftop of my house from one patio to another because it could not fit through the doors….that operation took all day, with long ropes and lots of strong men pulling and hauling… just for one shot , but that was how it was with Slim”.
My mother used to say about Slim: “White is a color, green is a color… Why does he want more color?”. But my mother collaborated with pleasure and in a good mood, using our home many times for that extra page-filler, whilst having the time of her life because that was what she most loved to do.
In this shot I am with my sister Sylvia, there is a potted red hibiscus on the table and my sister is wearing red, a compromise since originally Slim wanted us both in bright sarongs and we finally managed to strike a deal: one in chartreuse and white and the other in red and white. That photo also took a long time to set up because we had to wait until the sun came in through the front door at the precise angle that Slim wanted it so that it would hit Sylvia’s leg just so.
Slim’s are not coffee table books that are bought just to look good in your homes, they are documentaries of a lifestyle that does not exist any more because money cannot buy you this style nor this life and nowdays the people that live like that do not want to be photographed any more because they do not flaunt this kind of thing.
You read these books because you want to learn about the lifestyle that went with the pictures , the old-school glamour… And with the lifestyle came the people that created or populated the iconic places they made famous and that Slim photographed over and over such as Marbella, Porto Ercole ,Venice , Rome, Palm Beach, Sotogrande… Sotogrande was particularly difficult to shoot because unlike the very loud and showy Marbella just an hour’s drive away, the families that came to Sotogrande were glamorous for being unglamorous. Nobody wore Gucci sandals with Pucci pants around their swimming pools while sipping sangria and listening to jazz music.
What Slim embraced was that very low key and discreet set of people and houses which he then modeled to fit his phantasies. It is unbelievable how he transformed things ! from looking at those pictures you would have never guessed that the outmost sign of chic was a tattered pair of espadrilles, a well worn straw hat , some argentinian bombachas for riding on the beach and your parent’s old Lacoste hand me downs. I would have loved to know what Slim was thinking when he took one look at his subjects in their casual get ups and understated family homes. That is why I am such a huge fan : he managed to turn on the magic and made everywhere look like sets from a Hollywood film full of beautiful people.
In our age of photographic oversharing and over-exposure it is a treat to look through Slim’s books because you feel privileged to be part of these private moments and his old-school ( and now rare ) formality which is very removed from the spontaneity or improvisation of today’s portrait photography.
As a family we were lucky to pose for Slim many times throughout the decades and even if we sometimes rolled our eyes when my mother announced that he was coming because we knew that it meant moving furniture and having to get out of our scruffy tomboy clothes to sit with him while he visited, I now realize what a privilege it was to be able to watch him set up his elaborately simple shots, observe him direct his subjects and props, use the available light and process valuable information while he was scouting for subjects and places with my mother whilst being charming, entertaining and irresistible .
Katie Knab, producer ofHalcyon Days, an upcoming feature documentary on Slim which is in development as I write, says: «I have spend countless hours pouring over his work, lost in the ‘Slim Vortex’, hopelessly spiraling down the rabbit hole into the intoxicating lives of his subjects. His photographs have an immersive, transportive quality; their easy grace is enduring, leaving us both hopeful and nostalgic. They inspired us to believe in the fantasy, that perhaps a better version of ourselves is possible.
Obviously this was intentional to a certain degree, because he returned from WWII with the edict that the only beach worth landing on was ‘one decorated with beautiful, semi nude girls tanning in a tranquil sun’.Aaron’s photographs, although compiled over several decades, are to me representative of a pivotal juncture in modern culture & media.The film will illustrate Slim’s greater cultural impact on the creation of a new form of escapism art and probes our perception and understanding of the visual image both historically and in a modern, celebrity engrossed culture.
Halcyon Daysis sculpted through Aarons’ photographs, archival footage, interviews with his subjects, colleagues, friends and family, as well as conversations with his contemporaries. The oral history, set amidst the background of his utopian images, creates a vivid record of Aarons’ career, his indelible influence, and allows us to meditate on why Aaron’s harmonious compositions still resonate with us today».
Slim : you rocked!