'The Women in the Pictures are Often Based on My Mother'
3 July 2013
When fashion photographer Miles Aldridge was 10 he discovered that his father Alan — a Sixties illustrator who designed album covers for Elton John and worked with the Beatles — had ‘another family around the corner’, a long-term mistress and another child. Miles’s perfectly happy home was no more than a fake, and as his father left London for Norfolk with the other woman, his mother struggled with the drudgery of single parenthood and little money.
Almost 40 years later Aldridge’s distinctive, vivid and often erotic photographs of beautiful women owe much to that shocking moment of childhood discovery. Look closely and the trademark passivity of his models, with their blank unsmiling expressions and layers of heavy make-up, has a subversive quality, as though the women are trapped in a nightmare of stereotyped femininity and Barbie doll glamour.
Aldridge places his subjects in kitchens, supermarkets and playgrounds, surrounded by the detritus of a dinner party, or with children and babies whom they seem to ignore. The style of their clothes and hair is almost always nostalgic, which is no coincidence.
‘The women in the pictures are often based on the mother I grew up with,’ he confirms. ‘She’s not the wife of a successful illustrator, although she’s glamorous enough to be that. Instead she’s someone who continually cooks and washes and cleans and wears this unemotional, mask-like face… I think my mother felt trapped by me and my sister, but she was definitely a kind of muse to me.’
Aldridge’s work is all over London next month — at Somerset House in a major new show, at the Brancolini Grimaldi gallery in Albemarle Street, and on fashionista coffee tables in a glossy new book of more than 130 pictures. A new monograph, I Only Want You to Love Me (Rizzoli), has also been published.
He is thoroughly immersed in the world of high fashion — his model sister Saffron was once the face of Olay, and in 1997 he married American supermodel Kristen McMenamy — though they’re currently in the process of divorce. But you can’t help feeling as you look at his plastic, robotic models frozen in moments of cold detachment, that he’s actually in the business of undermining that world, proving in fact that nice frocks really don’t make you happy.
‘I don’t think the world is one great palazzo of people drinking champagne,’ he insists. ‘It’s not like that. There’s darkness there beneath the surface. My pictures always have to reflect my anxiety about the world.’
Aldridge’s career has involved some serious champagne-drinking, of course — but not at first. As a child he mythologised his absent dad, who later moved to LA and married yet another woman. ‘He finally left when I was 12 and communicated after that largely by postcard.’ Aldridge tried his hand at directing pop videos while living in a council flat in Bethnal Green. ‘My dad wasn’t very good with money. He made lots and lost lots. We weren’t from a moneyed background at all.’
He eventually sent some photos of an aspiring model girlfriend to an agency, and fell into fashion when they called him as well as her. By then he’d hung out on shoots with Saffron but had no real idea how to do it. ‘I remember watching my sister, who I knew was this oik from Camden who served burgers at Dingwalls, being transformed in a morning into an amazingly glamorous lady on a yacht. And I was impressed right from the start by the fakery of it, which is what a lot of my work is actually about.’
‘But at the start of it all I didn’t really have an idea in my head. Not a single idea. All I had was the worst stomach cramps you can imagine because I was so nervous.’ The oik from Camden, incidentally, is now married to the financier Ian Wace, who is worth a reported £300 million.
In the mid-Nineties Aldridge certainly looked the part — a pretty, skinny boy with badly bleached hair. It was a time when a British accent could still take you far in New York. ‘I wasn’t really accepted in London. I didn’t work for The Face, for example, for ages, it was very cliquey. But in New York I was shooting covers almost immediately… There was lots of money and there was a kind of madness to the fashion industry — but it was also great fun. I don’t think we’ll see that kind of excess again.’
He met McMenamy on a shoot for W magazine, and theirs was a famously glossy wedding. Karl Lagerfeld gave McMenamy away and Naomi Campbell was a bridesmaid. Aldridge won’t talk about the ongoing divorce proceedings but he and Kristen have two children, 10-year-old Arthur and seven-year-old Eddie, whom he sees every other weekend.
Today, Aldridge’s work undoubtedly blurs the line between commercial photography and art, and his photographs send messages beyond the simple promotion of clothes. Some will also think that the nudes, and some of his overtly sexual imagery, also blur the line between eroticism and the objectification of women. He doesn’t deny that he often looks at the women he shoots with desire, and that part of his project is ‘to make them look the best they possibly can from that point of view’. ‘I do love women, and I am fascinated by them,’ he says.
There is one picture that brings me up cold, however — a photograph of a passive woman lying on a bed with a man wearing bikers’ leathers and helmet standing next to her. It’s chillingly close to a rape fantasy in my book — yet Aldridge looks baffled when I tell him this. In fact, he says, the picture is yet again based on memories of his mother, this time in her dying hours as she lay in a hospice at the age of 49, racked by cancer. The man in the helmet is ‘the angel of death’ and the picture ‘a kind of metaphor of my mother’s passing’. Yet it’s also the one photograph of his that Italian Vogue, which was expecting something very different, has ever refused to publish.
Aldridge admits that he treads a fine line between providing his clients with easy material and creating his own darker worlds beneath the glossy surface. It’s why his photos are often so vibrantly coloured: ‘It’s a trick. Pretty colours make the message more palatable,’ he says.
‘All I know is that these images reflect how I feel about the world and what I’ve learned about it thanks to my life with my mother and with other women.’
It’s a world of jagged edges and murky undercurrents, all done up in bows and frills like a pretty doll. I’m not sure who he’s playing the trick on, but it’s a clever one.