Slim Aarons Women includes the photographer’s images of the fairer sex, some of which have never been seen before. I chatted with Hawk about Aarons’s enduring legacy, his impact on the fashion world, and the most important lessons one can learn from his work.
What do you think makes Slim’s work so timeless?
Regardless of what realm you’re talking about, whether it’s Ansel Adams or Richard Avedon, or wherever you choose to set down and look, great style and great composition is timeless. I think the times we’re living in make Slim’s work timeless because you can go back to a time when there was no Photoshopping. That just blows my mind. At the end of Slim’s career and life, Photoshopping was just starting to be done and I remember talking to him about it and each of us together expressing frustration that when you flip through a magazine you can’t really know if a photograph has been doctored or not. I remember him saying once I wish that there was some indicator, some dot in the upper right hand corner that tells you this photograph has been altered. They wouldn’t have to tell you how or where, but just that it is an altered photograph versus an unaltered photograph. To me, the times he lived and photographed, though modern enough and recent enough to that we can connect to it, but they’re still just so irretrievable…everything was so much simpler then.
Slim didn’t identify as a fashion photographer, but he is and has been so influential to fashion photographers. Why do you think that is?
He used to say that took pictures of real people in their own clothes and the people he photographed were so incredibly stylish and fabulous that the photographs that he took were copied and that became fashion. He felt he was sort of the instigator of fashion, which you can kind of scoff and say my god what an ego, but I think there’s something to it [laughs].
His work was also quite visually innovative at the time. Did he ever speak about any of his influences?
He got out of the war and I think he was, like a lot of soldiers today have PTSD, profoundly affected by what he experienced in the war and he decided what he was only going to do in his photography career was focus on the happier side of life, if you will. He did not use that word but I’m using that word. I think he decided to focus on human leisure if you want to be anthropological about it, then he just kind of fell into this world of higher end people as he went along. Honestly, his first job after the war was doing party pics for magazines. And then I guess he just…he had this incredible gift for banter and he was tall and kind of dapper looking, he loved to dress nicely. I think he just had this gift of gab and he ended up falling in with higher and higher groups of people and then the whole thing just took off from there. I don’t think he came out of the war and said, oh, I love the photography of….and I would like to copy that or be like him.
Did Slim primarily use natural light, or did he do something else to achieve the naturalness of the light in the images?
He would do everything within his power to use natural light, so that meant planning the shot at just the right time of today if light was streaming in through a window, if it was taken outside. He would do everything physically he could do–open doors, open windows. In cases where there still wasn’t enough light, he would use a little handheld strobe. He also carried a reflector and so often I would hold it and he’d say a little more this way, a little more that way. It seems so primitive now when they talk about it looking back, but that’s it. If he couldn’t get the shot then he’d do it a different way. The light would be a determining factor of when and how and where the photo was taken. Occasionally if he knew he was going to do a setup, like he did a famous photograph of the King of Spain and he knew ahead of time he was going to take this shot in his office or something, he would actually take a light set with him. It wasn’t that he never, never, never did, but I think he frankly just didn’t want to be burdened with the equipment.
What did people love and what do people continue to love about his work?
The connection I think between the photographer and subject is so important. There’s something about the intimacy that Slim had with these people and the way he set them up in their context, in their background with their surroundings, that I still find fascinating. I still sit there and just kind of devour a photograph of his. He is part of the genre of environmental portraiture, it’s just people in their setting and their setting is as important an element to the photograph as the person themselves. So when you look at a person in their own background especially someone who is unreachable to most of us in our normal lives, I just think that’s ultimately fascinating to most people. There’s a woman in the book and she looks like some older society lady and she’s leaning against the door of her living room and there’s a little teeny tiny thing in the corner of the photograph and it’s a needlepoint pillow on her sofa. I’m forever fascinated by this photograph because the needlepoint pillow says “Money Doesn’t Speak. It Goes Without Saying.” All of a sudden you’re looking at every detail of this picture and you see that little pillow and you’re like oh my god, it’s like the inner sanctum and you’re in their private jokes and their private little world. I would say it’s the voyeur tendency that almost every human being has a little bit of and the intimacy Slim achieved with his subject just because he was in a situation where there had to be some intimacy going on.
What do you think aspiring fashion photographers can learn from Slim’s life and work?
I think I would say be true to yourself. If you don’t have a particular vision, then just be authentic and true to what matters to you and what makes you tick. Of course in today’s world perhaps one should add, and don’t quit your day job until you get a foothold. It should be noted that no doubt it was of great consequence to Slim’s career trajectory that, as he started out as a party photographer, in a burgeoning post-war economy, it was unquestionably much much easier to make a living as a start-up photographer in New York than it is today. But that one little glitch notwithstanding, I’d think one has a better chance of making it if your are driven by what thrills or deeply satisfies you and if as a consequence you form a vision or a point of view that can sustain you.
Slim Aarons Women his available at Amazon.