Nathan A Staffel
Beautiful Happy Smile
After World War II ended, a young, war-weary American soldier returned home. He was an Army photographer, a combat veteran, and a Purple Heart recipient. He had one mission, to enjoy life to its fullest. His name was George Aarons and enjoying life to its fullest meant photographing “attractive people doing attractive things in attractive places.” He became known as Slim Aarons after the war. He was good natured, positive, a caricature of the 1950s white male: tall, lanky, pale with full eyes and impeccably combed almond hair. His essence was captured in a famous self-portrait. He rides a beach cruiser along an oceanfront boulevard, shirtless with khaki pants rolled up. He wears sandals, two cameras draped around his chest. A cigarette dangles from a grin that can only be described as belonging to a man who’d won the lottery, knew it, and would never apologize for it. In 2006, the year Aarons died, the New York Times published an article on the photographer’s legacy. “Mr. Aarons, who won a Purple Heart,” the article stated, said “combat had taught him that the only beach worth landing on was ‘decorated with beautiful, seminude girls tanning in a tranquil sun.’” His career lasted from 1947 to 1993. He shot on assignment for Holiday, LIFE, Vogue and Town & Country. He ingratiated himself into elite circles. They accepted him and in turn he became one of them. Life was good for Slim.
I came across Slim Aarons’s work in October 2019. I didn’t know who he was. My world never crossed his until I was shopping online for art. I had just purchased a beach condo. Well, I say purchased. I borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars from a bank. I’m not sure who owns it. Anyways, as I perused an art website for beach themed photography, his prints popped up. I immediately thought, “Oh this was Instagram before Instagram.” I became fascinated with his portfolio. The 1968 photo of sunbaked socialites laughing around a pool bar, partygoers in Colorado decked out in bright neon ski outfits sipping from silver, old white men and women in sporty dinner dress gathered poolside, cocktails in hand, a mansion looming in the background.
The more I immersed myself in Aarons’s world, however, the more I realized this wasn’t Instagram at all. Aarons’s photos were immersed in the world of luxurious hedonism, yet still removed. Take, for instance, a famous photo of four topless sunbathers on a yacht. The camera is staged back, behind the boat and slightly lower, to give the subjects an elevated stature. Their backs are to the camera. The ship’s flag slices through our view. They’re looking the other way, unaware, unconcerned with our voyeuristic gaze. They could not be more uninterested in the camera’s presence. Most of Aarons’s work was shot at a distance, reminding us that we are not a part of this world. The shots were staged, yet real, with lots of beautiful people milling about, behaving in a way that was normal to them. The subject was the whole extravagant scene.
Contrast this with Instagram’s trend, where oneself is the subject, friends conveniently cropped out. Frame it close up, so as not to capture the other tourists wandering about. Travel influencers present to us a world that does not exist. Carefully staged breakfast trays floating in an infinity pool, filled with breakfast dishes straight out of a Yelp five star Brooklyn brunch. A model looking out into the distant ocean. It’s all perfect and confusing. It’d strike you as satire if you didn’t know it was serious—the mixing of deep introspective gazes over Belgian waffles.This isn’t Aarons’s world. This is poser 101, photos staged to harvest likes. One Instagram influencer came under fire in 2017 for posting photos of herself in front of the Taj Mahal and in the Shangri-La hotel. The controversy? It was all photoshopped. The influencer addressed the controversy at the time with a vague statement, never denying “enhancing” her photos but carefully sidestepping the issue altogether. The sad part of the story is that the photos in question look exactly like every other influencer’s, photoshopped or not. Her account is still active. She has over half a million followers. Which begs the question, what was faker, her photos or the outrage they garnered? Slim’s world was glamorous because it was opulence for opulence’s sake, which made the fakery real. Real people, beautiful people, doing rich things, and they could care less what you thought of them. That was who they were. It was what they did. It existed whether the camera was there or not.
Slim Aarons never took himself or his work too seriously. He gave his Purple Heart to “a Blonde” after he returned home from the war. Celebrities liked him, Aarons’s said, because they knew he wouldn’t hurt them. For Aarons, he was telling the story of a small slice of the world without trying to tie it to any higher concept. “It’s all bullshit,” he once told his friend. Looking through his 1960s prints of motorboats pulling skiers one can almost hear The Beach Boys on loop. I love the Beach Boys. I love the unashamed happiness. It’s pure cotton candy. It’s delicious. But even in their prime, the Beach Boys interjected the sugar rush with a somber tone, if only forced. Take, for instance, my favorite song, “Good Vibrations.” Though it’s one of the band’s most popular songs, its production is dubious. The transition from verse to chorus back to verse is clunky and sudden. The melancholy of the bridge is suddenly interjected as if its sole purpose is to set up the catchy hook. Just get us to that build-up: “good good good good vibrations.” If the Beach Boys felt compelled to add some measured drama into 1960s pop culture, Slim didn’t feel such an urge. There’s no downside to his world. No apologies. No reason to apologize. There was genuine optimism. We won the war. We’re rich and we’re alive. With Hitler dead, hedonism seemed earned.
It’s with this eye that I began to reexamine Aarons’s work. With a more critical eye, I knew why my initial impression—this was Instagram before Instagram—was wildly off. Slim Aarons’s work embodied the free nature of a world that had just escaped destruction. Think about that. Twice, Germany tried to destroy the rest of the world, and twice the allies had to stop them. The second time around, the situation was grave and were it not for America’s sacrifice, things could have turned out much different. It’s easy for posterity to look back at WWII and see our victory as inevitable. That wasn’t the case. Fortunately, America stepped up and stopped the Nazi advance. As a result, we became the sole superpower and the wartime economy made America very rich. The middle class boomed, franchise fast food and drive-in movie theaters popped up everywhere, and the American dream took root in the suburbs. We know the story of post-WWII America but I didn’t understand the scale of the boom until I started poking around the numbers. America’s GDP grew by 7.7% in 1950. A staggering 14% the next year. Five recessions occurred between 1945 and 1975, but they were mere speed bumps. The boom ramped back up in the sixties. In that same timeframe, the U.S. economy grew over 675%. It seemed unstoppable. Until 2008.
In response to the Great Recession of 2008, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis published a study. Compiling new microeconomic data on American households, the 2013 study sought to answer, among other questions, whether the increase in household debt was relative to the increase in income or not. The results showed the 80th and 90th percentile of the income bracket had increased their debt the most relative to their income, mostly due to increased mortgage debt. The study went further. Utilizing microeconomic data of American households, the study conducted a stress test to understand the implications of today’s level of household debt: “Our study quantifies the financial stability risks in highly-leveraged economies where even comparatively small changes in asset prices are magnified and can quickly turn into substantial losses for households and financial intermediaries.” One has to wonder, have we learned our lesson? Today’s leveraged households create an exponential risk to the financial system. Too big to fail banks aren’t the only ones to blame. After the financial collapse, Congress enacted the Dodd-Frank Bill to tighten mortgage loan regulations. However, as a Foreign Affairs article pointed out, ten years later in 2018, making mortgage loans more stringent didn’t curb Americans’s appetite for debt. Shadow banks, financial entities that skirt traditional bank regulations such as Quicken Loans, stepped in to feed the demand. “The result,” Foreign Affairs stated, “is that the financial vulnerability remains but is harder to spot.” An April 2019 article from CNBC reported that shadow banks hold $52 trillion in assets. That’s an increase of 75% since 2008.
The system of credit is built on nothing but optimism. The textbooks say ‘trust’ but without an optimistic look on the future there is no trust. If I want to borrow money from you but you are not optimistic about my future earnings, you won’t lend to me. Many trustworthy people with terrible credit scores can’t get a loan. When the Federal Reserve lowers interest rates, it injects optimism into the system. The markets react with a sigh of relief and the S&P 500 gets a bump that day. The next day a Blue Chip company may miss an earnings estimate and the markets don’t look so optimistic anymore. The DOW plunges, triggering stop loss sells and algorithmic trades and institutional panic. The next day a unicorn tech company enters the market with its IPO and the NASDAQ eats it up. Things are looking up. Then a terrorist organization seizes an oil rig in Nigeria. Back down we go. The market is a bipolar barometer of the idea of optimism, but the principle remains the same. Optimism trumps trust. Without it the whole system collapses. Credit, and its many derivative forms, may need a world that will be better off, but all it wants is the perception.
Slim’s world could have only existed in the 1950s, which is why any attempt to recreate his no apologies excess is an exercise in futility. When you were disgustingly wealthy in the 1950s no one cared. Was there a wealth gap in the 1950s? Of course. But it was a gap filled with optimism. Everyone believed in the American Dream. You cannot say the same for today’s wealth gap. Pessimism is ever-present in the news, online, and politics. One percent is said with derision, not admiration, not even a hint of jealousy. In 2019, Real Clear Politics conducted a poll that asked, among many questions, “Do you believe that today the American Dream can be achieved by anyone in the United States if they work hard?” One-third of the respondents said no. The pessimism grew more bleak when asked whether the American dream was alive and well for those under eighteen years of age: “While 23 percent of Baby Boomers and Silent Generation voters say the American Dream is alive for them (already the lowest percentage among all age groups) only 15 percent say they believe it will be there for the next generation.” Did you catch that? 85 percent of Slim Aarons’s generation and their offspring, the baby boomers, the ones who benefitted the most from the post-WWII economy, say the American Dream is dead for those under eighteen years of age. It’s as if they know the music has stopped. No more Beach Boys. Instagram’s opulence reflects the wealth of today—hollow, derivative driven stock market, sub- prime shadow banks, too big to fail, one Ponzi scheme stacked on top of another: consumer debt, student loans, federal deficit in the trillions. There’s just not much there under the surface.
Postwar America, in many ways, is directly responsible for the America we see over half a century later. We exchange credit for plastic contraptions from China and dyed cotton from Sri Lanka and stuff it all inside of our McMansions on loan from the bank. We do this because we think it’s always been this way. It’s just how prosperity works. Sifting through Slim Aarons’s photography reminded me, consumerism does not equate to wealth. This was confirmed when I read another finding from that 2013 Federal Reserve study: the higher end of the income bracket tended to increase debt to purchase homes (assets) while the lower end of the income bracket tended to increase debt to purchase goods. I didn’t purchase any of Aarons’s prints, though I must admit, they do attract me in a weird Americana-nostalgic way. I ended up purchasing a painting of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. After all, I still need to fill my home with stuff. If you don’t know who Anna Akhmatova is, it’s okay. There’s no reason why you would. I only reference her when I feel written words no longer matter. Tonight, she told me I was right. So I closed the laptop and pulled out my phone, scrolling mindlessly through Instagram. Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling: an endless feed of #instamodels and influencers, scrolling until the emptiness came into focus. There’s nothing behind these young men and women’s eyes except a sense of doubt, a wondering. I felt it too. How long will this charade last?
Martin, Douglas. “Slim Aarons, 89, Dies; Photographed Celebrities at Play.” The New York Times. 1 June 2006. 01aarons.html?mcubz=0.
“Best of Slim Aarons - Wall Art.” Photos.com. Accessed 29 Oct. 2019. collections/best of slim aarons.
Peretz, Evgenia. “Inside the World of Slim Aarons.” Vanity Fair. 31 Jan. 2015.
Bosworth, Patricia. “Why Cant Slim Aarons Get Any Respect?” Town & Country, 22 Oct. 2019. story/.
Doré, Louis. “This Girl Had Everyone Fooled with Her Instagram Travel Photos - until Someone Spotted the Truth.” indy100. 25 July 2017. liana-instagram-doctored-images-photoshop-travel-lifestyle-7859026.
“United States (USA) GDP - Gross Domestic Product 1975.” countryeconomy.com. Accessed 29 Oct. 2019.
Kuhn, Moritz, Moritz Schularick, and Ulrike I. Steins. “The Great American Debt Boom, 1949-2013*,” Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis. 8 Sept. 2017.
Reinhart, Carmen, and Vincent Reinhart. “The Crisis Next Time.” Foreign Affairs. 20 Feb. 2019. next-time.
Cox, Jeff. “Shadow Banking Is Now a $52 Trillion Industry, Posing a Big Risk to the Financial System.” CNBC. 11 Apr. 2019. banking-is-now-a-52-trillion-industry-and-posing-risks.html.
Cannon, Carl and Tom Bevan. “The American Dream: Not Dead—Yet.” RealClear Politics. 22 Feb. 2019.
About the Author
Nathaniel Allen Staffel writes about the human experience as we transition into a post-Industrial world. A native Texan, Nathaniel currently hangs his hat in Puerto Rico looking for the perfect wave. Nathaniel holds a B.A. in International Relations and an M.S. in Information Technology.