Attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places
‘Attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places’ Slim Aarons
For me, there is generally a purpose to travel. Whatever that may be. Whether it’s the discovery of places my clients have talked of, or I’ve read about; or research for my product range or even to avoid distractions of home life to get admin done.
But on my particular journey this weekend…it has been pure pleasure. Not business related in any sense of the word, but definitely a journey of creativity and passion.
The aim of my journey has to been to retrace the locations of my favourite photographer, Slim Aarons, and see how much has changed over the decades. Can I state at the beginning that I am no photographer...I didn't do this to recreate his artwork (that would be an impossible task), I did it to retrace his footsteps. Pure indulgence…pure pleasure.
There will be many people who have never heard of him, but will more than likely have seen his work or seen visuals inspired by his photos. There is, however, not an art director or magazine editor that will not know of him and has not had a copy of one of his books and used it to inspire their work at some time. It has been reported that Vogue has had 47 copies of Slim’s 1974 book ‘A Wonderful Time’ (see above) borrowed and then ‘lost’ over the years (which, funnily enough, was a flop when it was released, but now a first edition can sell for thousands!!).
In fact one of my best friends, a designer for a very well-known restaurant chain, messaged me the other day to say that the Slim Aarons' photo I had posted on Instagram that day, of Faye Dunaway at the Beverley Hills hotel, shot after winning her Oscar in 1977, was on her mood board for a new location they were doing the interior for?!? I love Random.
So, a (very) brief history of the man himself…A key contributor to many of the high society American magazines over the decades, Slim Aarons upbringing was far removed from the photos he took. Born in 1916 as George Allen Aarons, he was brought up by his grandparents on a farm. He enlisted in the army so he could ‘see the world’ and managed to get a job as a ‘hypo dipper’ (someone who dunks developing prints into the chemicals). Soon after that he became a war photographer at West Point shooting military manoeuvres. To cut a long story short, Frank Capra, the Hollywood Director got him ‘out’ when he visited West Point looking for people to work overseas on Yank, the weekly spin-off of the military newspaper The Stars And Stripes.
Aarons saw and recorded some horrific fighting but it was at this time that he was introduced to George Silk and Carl Mydens who were taking war photos for Life magazine. They worked together taking photos depicting the destruction and became close…indeed, Slim literally saved Myden's life at one point , and in the process got wounded himself.
Anyway, once the war ended, Slim decided he didn’t want to take photos of bad things anymore and, due to the connections he had made, he started working for all the top society magazines. He ended up working for a visionary art director called Frank Zachary who changed the face of Holiday, Travel and Leisure and Town and Country magazines from publications that had become a little dated, into sought-after reading material. It was an incredible and beautiful era for art direction and print and Sim Aarons was a huge part of this socialite scene. The rich and famous believed him to be ‘one of them’ and therefore got invited to their parties because they knew he wouldn’t ‘hurt’ them.
So my quest on this trip to my favourite place, the Amalfi coast was to retrace some of his iconic photos and locations where he shot his pictures and give myself a blast back into the history of this utterly chic era and see whether it still holds that certain sense style. After all, who doesn't love the Amalfi Coast? So not particularly a hardship for me.
My first visit took me to Hotel Palumbo. Originally a Ducal Palace for the Duke Confalone, it became a hotel in 1875 and named after the new owner. The outside of the hotel hasn’t changed, the unique Italian crumbling pink stone work I was hoping for was still there and gave the building the sense of historical importance it was renowned for.
I was led upstairs to the main drawing room where the photo of Pasquale Vuilleumier, the grandson of Pasquale Palumbo was taken. The room was laid out very differently to how it had been in 1984 when the image was taken and had lost a certain sense of old quintessential charm as the huge wood desk had been removed and it was now laid out for the guests breakfast, but there was no escaping the huge magnificence on the back wall of the beautiful Baroque painting of St John the Baptist by Guido Reni, a student of Caravaggio. It was impossible to miss the incredible picturesque ceiling decorated by frescoes from 1800 and the huge wooden imposing arch was still there. So even though the usage of the room had inescapably changed, the old world feeling hadn't.
My next journey took me to Amalfi and two of hotels there…Hotel Belvedere and the simply stunning Hotel Santa Catarina. Both of Slim's shots here were bird's eye views of the pools on the coast edge. And I have to say, that apart from more foliage, it really hadn’t changed since the photo was taken. Hotel Belvedere was perfectly charming, possibly not quite as grand as I was expecting but the view of the pool was undoubtedly beautiful.
Hotel Santa Catarina on the other hand...assolutamente meraviglioso!!!!!! Old world charm personified. The manager showed me around the beautiful gardens and took me to the spot where the photo was taken. This incredible pool is on the cliff's edge of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The hotel was built in 1880 by Giuseppe Gambardella and redesigned in 1904 by his son. It still remains within the generations of the original family but has gone from the original 6 guest rooms to 66. Still frequented by the Hollywood A-listers such as Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and the likes, it was certainly part of the chic Slim Aaron era. Just being here gave me goosebumps.
However, my favourite part of the trip was taken at the end. Weeks before my visit I had been researching Villa La Rondinaia. Slim had taken a photo there of the American writer and social critic Gore Vidal in 1979. Vidal had acquired the villa in 1972 after many years of travelling to Ravello. Nicknamed 'The Swallows Nest' for the way the villa perches precariously on the cliff edge, it is one of the 3 most famous buildings in Ravello...the other two being Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone. However, these two are open to the public but Villa La Rondinaia is still privately owned. I managed to find a contact and honestly didn't expect to hear anything back...but a couple of weeks later I got a very brief message saying a visit was not possible as the building was being renovated. When I explained that I simply wanted to recreate this one shot on the steep steps up the hillside I got a slightly tenuous response saying it may be possible and to contact once I had arrived in Ravello.
To be honest, I didn't hold out much hope and the hotel I was staying in were in strong denial that this would be allowed too. However, giving up on something is not in my nature and when I followed it up with another email I was told to meet in Palazza Duomo at 3pm. No idea who I was meeting or what s/he looked like...all I knew was that I was going to be there come what may.
And there I met the utterly charming Marco. The current owner of the villa. His English was far better than my Italian and he led me up the hills of Ravello on foot to the locked gates. It was like walking into an enchanted garden. As soon as I entered I knew just how special this hidden gem was. Marco explained a little of the history and apologised that he couldn't take me inside the villa due to all the building work but that I was welcome to come back in October when I am doing the 2nd leg of my trip (Sorrento and Capri). He allowed me to take photos for personal use only and then let me to take the one shot I had asked for. As you can see, not much has changed at all.
What I love about Aarons' photos is that he didn't use make-up artists or stylists, he shot people in their surroundings. He didn't have a disdain for wealth, an aspiration to have it or an upbringing that meant he was naturally part of that set. He had just seen so many awful things in the early part of his career that it would appear he just wanted beauty in his life. Obviously very few of us have the lifestyles he took pictures of, but that's not the point. The point is that when you look at his pictures, they bring a smile to your face...it was an era of glamorous chic that feels very far apart from most of our lives now. But there is no harm in that.