There is something about admiring the ultra-rich from afar, that irresistible magnetism toward the lives we can’t even comprehend. Renowned photographer Slim Aarons gracefully captured that elusive allure throughout his long and successful career, painting portraits of opulence and luxury that beckon us into the world of our dreams. On display this winter at Staley-Wise Gallery is the show “The Good Life.” In this fourth solo show with the gallery, we are given his classic jet-setting, luxurious images, and several never-before-seen photos from his portfolio.
Born in 1916 in Manhattan, Aarons faced a challenging upbringing. After his mother spent time in a psychiatric ward and his father distanced from the family, Slim and his brother spent a period in an orphanage. He and his brother eventually moved in with their grandmother in New Hampshire. By eighteen, he enlisted in the United States Army, where his photographic journey began. Amidst his service, he focused on combat photography and contributed his talent to Yank Magazine. He continued working with magazines after the war, shooting for Life and Look. Later, as the gallery notes, the growing accessibility of airplane travel piqued his interest in vacation photography, and he was commissioned by magazines such as Travel and Leisure. This period launched him into his career among the jet-setting crowd that he is known for today.
His photos are marked by such a spectacular yet tasteful grandeur, it's almost too difficult to see his subjects as the same species. At the Excelsior Hotel Gala in Rome, socialites, draped in luxury, drink martinis. In Antibes, a woman in a bikini lounges on her boat. They live the life we want, that care-free, neverending opulence— a joie de vivre so great, it's like they dance through existence without a worry, painting each moment with hues of indulgence and unfettered joy.
However, amid these splendor scenes, Aarons also captured poignant glimpses of everyday life. Displayed in this show is a photo of children playing in a Belfast playground graffitied with “No Surrender,” and other pro-loyalist speech. Another shows New Yorkers dancing by a stage in Central Park. Regardless of whether his subjects were sitting beside their Palm Springs pool or visiting a zoo in Miami, he had an unparalleled skill for catching the essence of a person, the spirit of the moment. The mastery of his work lies in his ability to relax his subjects. They exude a natural calmness, leaving us with the impression of effortless confidence and glamor.
At the same time as this exhibit is the release of a new book, Slim Aarons: The Essential Collection, the first ever to cover his oeuvre from his whole career. See Slim Aarons’s “The Good Life” at Staley-Wise Gallery in Manhattan through January 20th.