Attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places” is how American photographer Slim Aarons summed up his work. Turning his lens on the newly formed jet set of the late 1950s, he captured glamorous scenes of socialites and aristocrats, politicians and artists from Acapulco to St Tropez. “He was not only welcomed into their lives but considered a friend, and thus captured a moment in time that few others did,” says artist and curator Lee Wells, who has sold “hundreds of Aarons prints” through his IFAC (International Fine Arts Consortium) galleries in New York and Athens.
Wells discovered Aarons through his grandmother, who had a copy of the photographer’s book A Wonderful Time: An Intimate Portrait of the Good Life (signed first editions from £1,253 at AbeBooks), as well as a small print of what is perhaps his most iconic image, Poolside Gossip (1970), depicting the modernist Richard Neutra-designed Kaufmann House in Palm Springs with a clutch of immaculate coiffed women gathered around the pool, backed by the San Jacinto mountains. It’s a work that barely needs an introduction, being so embedded in our visual lexicon.
“For over two decades, Aarons’ images have proven to be the most consistent sellers among the 80 million we hold,” says Matthew Butson, vice president of the Hulton Archive at Getty Images, which bought the photographer’s entire archive in 1997 and offers prints as open (from £100) and limited editions (from around £1,100). IFAC then sells Poolside Gossip as a large-scale (183cm x 122cm) estate edition of 150 for £7,419, while a smaller (51cm x 41cm) iteration of Penthouse Pool (1961) – a colour-saturated scene atop Athens’ Canellopoulos hotel, with the Acropolis in the background – is £3,000.
Prints of his works abound because, as Brandei Estes, head of photographs at Sotheby’s London, points out: “Aarons, like many photographers of the time, never imagined his works would become collectable. Thus, to have value, you really need the signature of the photographer.” Signed works range from $5,500 to $20,000, says Etheleen Staley, co-founder of Staley-Wise Gallery in New York, who worked with Aarons. She currently has several prints, including Sea Drive (1976, 20cm x 24cm, $12,000), showing film producer Kevin McClory and his family driving across Nassau Harbour in the Bahamas in an “amphicar”, and The Good Life (1955, 102cm x 152cm, $20,000), depicting a mother and son and their dogs at the pool of their palatial Palm Springs home. “People buy them for their yachts, for their pool houses, because they love the location or because they’re related to people in the picture,” says Staley of Aarons’ broad appeal.
But if Aarons’ oeuvre errs on the ubiquitous, “Edward Quinn’s beautiful images are not very well known,” says Estes. The Irish-born photographer documented a similar milieu to Aarons, but worked mostly in black and white, with the likes of Grace Kelly and Picasso cropping up in his glamorous scenes. “He shot the great and the good who gravitated to the Côte d’Azur,” says Michael Hoppen, whose London gallery sells vintage signed Quinn works and has a starry selection featuring Brigitte Bardot, Jane Fonda and Jayne Mansfield (from £1,800). Qvint in Hamburg, meanwhile, has prints of four particularly jet-set 1950s examples, from Aristotle Onassis on a gangplank in Monaco (1956, 40cm x 30cm, €1,700) to Marlon Brando strolling the Bandol seafront (1954, 40cm x 30cm, €1,700) and Grace Kelly under a parasol on the set of To Catch a Thief in Cannes (1954, 40cm x 50cm, $1,850).
A forerunner to these society photographers was, of course, Frenchman Jacques Henri Lartigue, who took his camera to Chamonix in the winter and St Tropez in the summer. “He was predominantly a painter, but from around 1910 he captured the wealthy at play on film, and his work was hugely influential,” says Estes. Both Paul Smith and William Boyd have recently curated hugely popular Lartigue shows at Hoppen’s gallery. “Original signed work is hard to find,” says Hoppen, adding that Lartigue’s estate is now owned by the French government. “We have some vintage prints, as well as more recent editions, such as Coco at Eden Roc, Cap d’Antibes, from 1938 [40cm x 50cm, £2,541], an evocative snapshot of a stylish sunbather, and Ski-Joring à Chamonix in 1913 [50cm x 60cm, £2,541]. “Aarons and Lartigue recorded a golden age before photography became the bad boy that it is today,” continues Hoppen. “There’s no defence in their work; that’s what makes it so special. They were able to record while making themselves disappear, creating mementos of the good things in life.”
Such heady nostalgia proliferates in the carefully curated photography collection of London-based financial investor Toby Glyn, which includes two Lartigues, but he was originally drawn to Aarons’ slick images. “I bought them because I wanted something fun,” he says of the two works sitting in his kitchen, Pool Party (1970) – revisiting the Palm Springs Kaufmann House – and Keep Your Cool (1978) showing Carmen Alvarez playing backgammon with Frank “Brandy” Brandstetter. “I love the richness of Aarons’ colour,” says Glyn. “The pictures remind me of David Hockney because of the swimming pools.” And therein lies the allure of all these works: you just want to dive right in.