Futuristic, Retro and Very Now
8 April 2009
‘Freud meets Fellini’ is how Miles Aldridge describes his work. His solo exhibition of fashion photographs at Hamiltons Gallery initially seems closer to late Fellini than to Freud. Where Freud is from a monochrome age, Aldridge is a dedicated, if not obsessive, colourist. It is his 21st-century take on the primary palette that is most striking: acid yellow, glossy cherry, astroturf green and deep blue – not sky blue, or the lapis lazuli of frescoes, but the impenetrable blue of air-hostess uniforms or Italian football shirts.
Born in 1964, Aldridge, whose father is the illustrator Alan Aldridge (perhaps best known for The Butterfly Ball and The Grasshopper’s Feast), grew up in London in an undoubtedly exciting period and, indeed, milieu. The worlds he creates in his fashion shoots, for Italian Vogue and other glossies, evoke the 1960s and 1970s.
In his series entitled Home Works we glimpse a polished blonde, with perfect red lipstick and bright 1960s outfits, going about her domestic chores in her immaculate yellow fitted kitchen. In one photograph, she leans forward provocatively – and with more than a dash of devil-may-care – to light her cigarette on the blue flame of a hob; in another, we chance upon a moment of reverie as she rolls out some red icing. These scenes are at once shinily futuristic and appealingly retro – which translates as achingly stylish, and very now.
Aldridge is tapping into the current appetite for tales of bored housewives on the verge: for anyone hooked on Mad Men, this blonde is surely Betty; but she could just as easily be Revolutionary Road ‘s April Wheeler, or any of those desperate housewives in Wisteria Lane.
‘I like the women I feature to be as complicated as possible,’ says Aldridge, ‘to have a seemingly perfect veneer, but an undercurrent of trauma and panic.’ This is where Freud meets Fellini – but they seem to be convening on the set of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Sex is another strong Freudian flavour in Aldridge’s work. Each image sits somewhere along a spectrum of propriety, from the subtly suggestive (his Last Range of Colours series) to the fantastically naughty (Casting Couch or Minuit #2). But however eroticised, the female models remain pristine and hermetic, and therefore almost innocent.
Although his images necessarily reflect the zeitgeist (given his penchant for colour, surely he is the fashion photographer of spring/ summer 2009?), Aldridge’s methods could be seen as old-fashioned. He begins by sketching out scenarios in a small notebook. These small, spikily expressive drawings, which carry more emotion than the polished finished product, are sadly not on display at Hamiltons, but they are included in a Steidl book on Aldridge to be published this month.
Aldridge says that many of these scenarios are inspired by chance sightings while travelling – of a lone woman crossing the road in a bright coat, say, or sitting by herself on a bus, or about to catch a plane. Then he sketches away and constructs a psychological narrative for each magazine spread.
Aldridge is unusual in his profession in that he hasn’t succumbed to digital. All his images are shot first on film, then scanned, and then tweaked later on computer. Most of his luminescent colour effects are achieved through lighting early on: ‘The Wizard of Oz is a great influence,’ he says. ‘I love the way Technicolor broke everything down into blocks of pure colour and gave a bright blue hue to the shadows.
Where those consumptive blue shadows were an accidental by-product in the 1939 film, Aldridge goes to great lengths with lighting to create the same unsettling effect in his work. His 21st-century Dorothys, bloodless, preoccupied and jaded, do not seem nearly as delighted to inhabit a Technicolor world.