Author and former assistant Laura Hawk unveils the fascinating lives of Slim Aarons’ most beautiful subject – women, and offers a glimpse into the complicated working relationship she had with the notoriously difficult pioneering lifestyle photographer.
By Brad Halasz
Sometimes all it takes to become a legend is being in the right place at the right time — that, and a rebellious streak mixed with a tenacious work ethic and a penchant for all things beautiful. Luckily for budding photographer Slim Aarons, he had all of those traits and just happened to be there on the precipice of a new post-war era that would come to define a generation.
“He really just fell into it. I guess that’s a good lesson for all of us, if you just show up and have an open mind in life, God knows what happens,” says Laura Hawk, Slim’s longtime assistant and author of the new book Slim Aarons: Women.
The book is a celebration of Slim’s most iconic photography, featuring hundreds of photos of extraordinary women of high society, Hollywood, fashion, and the art world spanning six decades starting in the 1940s. Iconic figures like Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn, Eva Gabor, and the Duchess of Windsor all make appearances at their most dazzling, in the most stunning settings around the world.
The book is a time capsule of a bygone era when a generation disillusioned by the war looked to a life of leisure as a way to escape. A veteran himself, Slim vowed to “walk on the sunny side of the street,” by “photographing attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places.”
“It was such a fascinating moment in history,” adds Hawk. “We were all on the brink of so many cool things, like color photography and commercial air flight and all these things we don’t think about now.”
While the postwar generation of elites were figuring out a new way to live — complete with grandiose yachts, exclusive clubs, lavish clothing and a cocktail always in hand — Slim was there documenting it and defining a new approach to lifestyle photography. Women reveals Slim’s mastering of environmental portraiture, eschewing predetermined backgrounds, subjects and accessories that were synonymous with the studio. Instead, he focused on on-the-spot photography matching the subject with her natural setting. The background became just as important as the subject — a groundbreaking concept for the time.
Hawk’s approach for the book was to unveil the story behind these iconic images with vivid captions that give new context and a new voice to these extraordinary women.
“I wanted to dig underneath the fact that they were wealthy, or celebrities, or royalty or just good looking women who happened to be wherever Slim was — to get underneath that into a little bit of who they were as people,” she says. “Some of the captions I just loved because of the information I dug up. The one that’s just hilarious to me, because it shows her wonderful sense of humor, is Joan Collins (page 65). I love her line about being an older woman and marrying a younger guy, she goes, “If he dies, he dies,” I thought that was so funny and clever.”
The book features over 250 of Slim’s most iconic images curated from the Getty Images Archives, many of which are available to order on Photos.com. There are also many never-before-seen outtakes that are being published for the first time. This unprecedented look into Slim’s process allows the reader to immerse themselves in the meticulous decision making that went into each shoot.
“There must be some universal fascination with understanding the process of picking out the final photo that really works,” says Hawk, referring to outtakes of Dolores von Furstenberg Guinness (page 71) as an example, “I just think it’s fun to see what the ultimate, best photo was; it allows the reader to be a part of the selection process.”
Hawk had a first-hand account of Slim’s meticulous attention to detail as his assistant, lending a hand wherever she was needed. One day she was a stylist, “then a researcher, a writer, muse, bouncer, extra, diplomat and general problem solver,” she says. And while she managed to stick with him for over a decade where countless others failed to last more than a year, Slim’s bias toward doing things his way often irked Hawk. Looking back, her one regret was not breaking his cardinal rule of nobody being allowed to carry a camera except for him.
“I have regretted that for decades,” she says. “I should have snuck one in everywhere we went. He probably would’ve died if he could have seen everybody now has a cell phone camera.”
In the end, though, Hawk’s good memories outweigh the bad. She treasures her time spent with Slim, knowing she too was at the right place at the right time.
“It was so frustrating to work for him and so isolating sometimes, but I just have such great affection for him, it just seems to grow every time I do a project like this, you relive it in that sense. He truly broke the mold, oh my God, he truly broke the mold.”
Check out some of Laura’s favorite images from the book:
Images from Slim Aarons: Women are available for purchase at Photos.com by Getty Images.