Meeting with Miles Aldridge
1 January 2009
For his first solo show in London, at Hamilton’s Gallery, fashion photographer Miles Aldridge selected photographs from a range of works he created for publications such as Vogue Italia, Numéro or the New York Times. With a deliberately strong emphasis on colour, the selections for Doll Face reveal a very distinctive style. He talks to us about how that style came into being; revealing his influences from other photographers as well as filmmakers, while expressing his seemingly unbridled passion for various female archetypes.
Sarah Baxter: How did you get started in photography?
Miles Aldridge: I kind of fell into photography by accident. It was an interesting time in London for fashion and photography in 1995/96. I was working doing pop videos for British independent bands, like Jesus and Mary Chain. I was living a kind of bohemian life. My sister, who was a model at the time, proposed to my girlfriend to try and do some modelling, because everything was changing in London and there was a new kind of aesthetic, which was later called Grunge. The new look would be someone like Kate Moss; more quirky, less of a classical supermodel. Anyway, I took some photographs of my girlfriend for her portfolio and she went to Vogue and they asked her who took those pictures because they were great! So that’s how it all started. Anything really can be the beginning of a fashion photograph: recreating something you saw in real life, or it might even be from a dream. When we see a photograph, it’s a souvenir, a document from reality; and at the same time we know it has the ability to be manipulated. That is what attracted me a lot: this ability to play this game between truth and fiction, lies and half-truths.
SB: So you became a fashion photographer?
MA: I began as a fashion photographer. I didn’t begin as a normal photographer. My first work was photographing girls in clothes and dresses, with hair and makeup. I really began in the middle of everything and I had to learn very quickly and pretend for a long time that I knew what I was doing! Actually, on a fashion photo shoot, the team is so strong, from hair and makeup to styling, not to mention the models, that you can actually be supported by great talent. And that’s fine for the first six months, maybe even a year. But after a certain point, you have to ask yourself what it is you believe in, what do you want to do, what do you hate, what do you love, what do you want to change? That’s when you start to have a voice of your own.
SB: You managed to impose your style quite rapidly, with lights and bright colours…
MA: I don’t know when it started! I should look into my archives and find out which was the first picture I took that actually had a style! I do like the control. I don’t like the surprise of not knowing what is going to happen on a shoot. You know, the traditional image of the fashion photographer is the character played by David Hemmings in Antonioni’s Blow-Up.
He arrives in the morning, and he meets the models and sees the clothes for the first time, and he creates something spontaneous. And this was the model of the photographer when I started. Sometimes that approach was very successful, and sometimes it ended up with a lot of disappointed people and very bad Polaroids! As I didn’t like this feeling of having no control, I gradually started to do drawings, little sketches about what the picture should be before I got to the studio. So, for the first year or so, doing this new work, it was really about trying to control the almost uncontrollable atmosphere and energy that you find in a fashion studio. By doing the drawings I could explain to people what I wanted to do. I refused to shoot on location, with the sun! I live in England so I couldn’t be sure the sun would shine the next morning! So I worked for five years in a studio. If I wanted to do a picture on a staircase, I would make the staircase in the studio. If we wanted a picture on a bus, we would bring the bus into the studio! It was very strict in my head. I thought it really was the only way to give the work its identity. And also to give me the time, as a still fairly new photographer at that point, to look at the picture and try to understand what bits I like, what bits I felt were boring and what bits I felt were already someone else’s language. I didn’t want to make a photograph that Peter Lindberg or Mario Testino would do. And that is quite a difficult situation to put yourself into because you have to avoid a lot of clichés that are easy to do. And also, the other problem you have is working with a team of makeup artist and hairdressers, they all bring their ideas from other shoots and its part of what is beautiful about fashion photography, it’s almost like an organic process where ideas are simultaneously growing in different photographers heads because of the transmutation of ideas from one studio to another. So this is part of my mission.
SB: Your work is predominantly in colour…
MA: I am always very excited about colour! I decided that I had to be a colour photographer because when I started, the most present visual language in photography was black and white. Lindberg and Testino, or David Sims. Black and white photography was considered serious photography whereas colour had a touch of the ‘amateur’ about it. But I had this feeling that photography could be more like painting and that you could be incredibly aggressive and dangerous with colour. And in the end, colour is so much more exciting, for me at least. One of my mission statements to myself is that I had to be a colour photographer!
SB: You said you start your process by making some drawings. Does that mean you visualise scenes before the photo shoots?
MA: The drawings are quite helpful to imagine how the pictures can progress. I can think of several pictures to build a story, and how they would be sequenced. Not exactly like a movie, that has a beginning, a middle and an end; but they could all be scenes from a movie and should therefore all be slightly different but also slightly connected to the same story. The drawings are like storyboards for the shoots, they’re the starting point. And of course, when you enter into the studio, everything changes! So you have to remain focused. The camera is an incredibly seductive machine, especially for men! I think men really like to play with machines; they have this incredible power. You put your eye to the frame and everything you’re looking at through this rectangle could be from a movie! That’s why I have a very strict quality to my aesthetic, a certain idea of purity and clarity. It could be Japanese, or German; it certainly isn’t British!
SB: Yet your subject matter is quite glamorous…
MA: Although the pictures I take look quite decadent with their colour and their sexy girls, my ambition is not to be decadent aesthetically with too much stuff. Now I shoot on location quite a lot, because I feel a lot more confident than when I began. But I remain strict, only with elements from the real world. Whether it’s a scene in a hotel room, a restaurant or a corridor. I always approach my photography like a cameraman, like a director of photography might approach a scene in a movie thinking, ‘What’s the best angle for this? Where do I put the lights? What is the most visually impactful way to do this?’
SB: The series Doll Face that you are showing at the Hamilton Gallery is a selection of your work for magazines. How did you go about selecting them?
MA: Doll Face is my first solo show in London. There are about 35 images edited from various projects for magazines such as Vogue Italia, Numero, Paradis, etc. There is a very clear visual style and aesthetic to my work that seems to hold all the work together. I have a feeling that these pictures of different women, from different projects over the last 8 years, have a certain cohesiveness. They could all be scenes from the same movie in a way. You have a mother, without her child, in an incredibly Technicolor playground; an eroticised Virgin Mary; images of a carrousel where a girl is at one point lounging in a sexy way, and another where she looks like she could be dead, or asleep… I like the women in my pictures to have a complicated internal life, expressed through a rather doll-like exterior. So every thing is fine on the outside; it’s all smooth and beautiful. But I like this idea of obsessional, crazy women! So the title Doll Face has multiple meanings. It’s kind of an affectionate, rather masculine and macho term that one could use for a woman who is attractive. A lot of women in my pictures have this doll-like quality. I am always trying to get this rather faraway look in the face, which is actually very real I think because it’s the face that we often wear when we’re thinking. It’s the face people have when they’re waiting in a restaurant for a partner to arrive, or sitting on a train on the way home, or looking at books in a shop window. It’s a blank expression that is filled with human experience and questions; and lack of answers.
SB: One thing that does seem to tie the Doll Face photographs together is the very strong colours…
MA: Doll Face is the most colourful exhibition I’ve ever had! Tim Jeffries really pushed for us to select the most colourful work that we could. I’ve had two other solo shows in Amsterdam, at the Reflex Gallery, but because of the white clean space at Hamilton’s, we really wanted the gallery to be like a candy store. With comic-book colour, pop-art colour, the acid colours of a candy shop. The prints are quite small. I sometimes print large, like a metre or so. But in the gallery, they are all about 30cm. They’re like condensed jewels of colour. Also, the title Doll Face has this child-like association with children’s things.
SB: What are your influences in photography?
MA: There are three photographers that I think every fashion photographer has to acknowledge as being crucially important to the whole language of what we do. Those three are Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Helmut Newton. Avedon’s genius was to create fictional women in fashion and he brought the idea of storytelling. The idea of amazing women living a fictional life in a way could be grasped; his women drinking coffee at Café de Flore, or his women backstage at the Folies-Bergères. It’s storytelling, and it’s got this wonderful question mark hanging above the picture each time: Who is this woman? Where is she going? What is her problem? What is her story? Why is she drinking in the afternoon? Why is she laughing? From Richard Avedon, you get other great storytelling photographers, like Bob Richardson, another favourite of mine. Irving Penn, for his part, brings rigor and seriousness to image making. For me, Penn is all about the closeup. I adore the series he did on the French trades: the baker, the butcher, the maids… I love his ability to look at the real world and turn it into art. It’s effortless as well. The lighting is just perfect. Both Avedon and Penn have such elegant views of the world and really created the structure for people like me to play. They made the frame so that people like me can be like chimpanzees swinging around on the frame having fun.
Then Helmut Newton is unbelievably successful a every crazy idea he had. Every bold, sexy, violent, strong, intense concept that he wanted to turn into a photograph, he succeeded. He really is the one you can say gave courage to photographers to say that anything can be acceptable. All three of them were working in a world of elegance and great beauty. But they all had their own ways and had different views of their world. They are for me the holy trinity of fashion photography. But someone like Federico Fellini is far more inspiring to me overall. Thinking about how interesting women can be, because the women he creates in his movies are complex and just so multilayered. The kind of women you’d love to meet in a café, in a restaurant or sitting on the Eurostar – filled with complications, questions and ideas.
SB: Your work is all about women…
MA: I don’t know why for men, the woman is such an interesting subject! [laughs] We spend so much time thinking about them. That’s my job: endlessly thinking about women! A version of my wife; a version of my mother; a version of a stranger; a version of my children, even. Playing with the simple themes of innocence, sexiness, desperation and tranquillity.
Again, look at all the female characters in Fellini’s movie 8ó: the innocent girl played by Claudia Cardinale; the strong-willed wife; the sexual mistress… All of them are little drawings, ideas that Fellini had. And in a way, I like to play with the same spinning wheel of ideas about the female character.
SB: You said you like taking something from real life and trying to reconstruct it in a cinematic way…
MA: The problem is I put so much emphasis on the visual. For me, when something is looking ugly, it disturbs me, and I want to make it beautiful. Or if it’s ugly, I want to make it really ugly, so it becomes almost beautiful in another way. Like some of the pictures I made of the mouths, filled with red spaghetti in them. It’s deliberately ugly, but it’s also greasy and shiny and somehow beautiful. I guess I don’t like things that I find ordinary and even. I like things to be operatic: to be really colourful, or really violent, or really sexual in a way; to play with those extremes. Everything is driven by this desire for beauty and eleganceand clarity.