In Between Real And Imagined Worlds With Miles Aldridge

By Natalie Stoclet

4 May 2021

‘Pictures or it didn’t happen’ has become the mantra of an Instagram era. The modern colloquialism while undoubtedly prevalent poses a larger question: what is the role of the camera today? The task we find ourselves with is being able to separate an art form from those who use it for the performance of an attractive life on social media, and those who merely use cameras to record reality. The thing is—humans are drawn to drama and theatrics. The truth lacks banality. What’s real becomes far more interesting when we change the idea of reality itself. Whether watching the news or scrolling our news feed, our minds are constantly suspended between what we perceive as reality and falsehood.


Before we lived our lives on screens, Miles Aldridge was already using the camera to create fantastical realms that questioned reality. Aldridge’s lens has looked upon many celebrated subjects—from Marina Abramović and Donatella Versace—to the Maurizio Cattelan sculptures he captured over the course of one night in a Paris museum. Decades of his work will be on display at Fotografiska New York for the British artist’s first ever American retrospective. Titled Virgin Mary. Supermarkets. Popcorn. Photographs 1999 to 2020, the exhibition is exemplary of the type of collaboration you’ll see from Culture Works, the new company rising from the merge of NeueHouse and Fotografiska.


Consisting of 64 works, Aldridge’s retrospective will display themes from consumerism and the false promise of luxury to religion and artificial realities. Aldridge’s work only rarely allows the real world to encroach upon the imagined realm. Despite time and technology, his photographs and the themes they present are as relevant today as they were 20 years ago. Each piece asks the viewer to question what they see, to escape, to imagine. Here, we talk to Aldridge about his retrospective and what it means to distinguish between the real and the imaginary at a time where the truth is in limited supply.


Natalie Stoclet: What does it mean to you to have a retrospective? 


Miles Aldridge: I am thrilled to be having my first American retrospective at Fotografiska. It brings together images created over the last 20 years highlighting the themes that have driven my work; the false promise of luxury, the impossibility of communication, the mystery of life, and why I am me and not you.


NS: Tell us more about the false promise of luxury. What is promised and what is false? 


MA: Advertising images promise we will be happier and healthier if we buy the products in the ads. How many images of people smiling have been used to sell us things we don’t need? Enough to fill the walls of every museum worldwide hundreds of times over. This promise to improve our lives is rarely met yet we continue to be the willing participants in this false promise.


NS: What is the difference between the real and imagined realms as portrayed in your art? 


MA: In my images, the real and the imagined realms are constantly overlapping, meshing together to create a new reality. Moments glimpsed from life or remembered from my childhood are viewed through a filter of cinema and art, and reimagined in the studio. When a bottle of ketchup fell and exploded across my kitchen floor I made visual connections to the Wizard of Oz, David Lynch’s Eraserhead and the Campbell Soup can screen prints of Warhol. The films of Fellini showed me that creating one’s imagined reality in a film studio can create compelling situations regardless of whether the scene looks believable. In the same way that a typewriter can be used by a journalist, novelist, or playwright, I believe the camera can be used for many purposes, of which recording reality is probably the least interesting.


NS: If there is not one source of truth in today’s society, how do you decipher what’s real or imagined outside of art? 


MA: One source of truth is not how today’s divisive society works. Truth has never been in such short supply as it is today. The bloody fist-fight of the last US election illustrates the sorry state of ‘the truth’ in society and how it can be bent to anyone’s will. That famous truism, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’, has never been truer.


NS: You have said “Fiction and theatricality can be more truthful than documenting reality,” can you explain what this means? 


MA: It simply means that when I am sitting in a cinema watching a Kubrick film, or in the theatre watching a Chekhov play, I am moved by the human stories in these artificial scenarios. Most figurative painting is also artificial. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard are artificial yet we are moved. I believe in the stories we tell in images; from the earliest pictures scratched inside a cave 45,000 years ago imagining the animals that would be hunted, to the present day where images that move us are products of the imagination.


NS: What do you feel when you look at the 64 works of art in your retrospective, and what do you hope your audiences will feel? 


MA: I feel a sense of having completed a long journey from which I set out in 1999. The world has changed, our priorities have changed but the work doesn’t feel dated. It feels as relevant today as when I first started.


NS: Out of all the subjects in your retrospective, who has been your favorite to photograph? 


MA: Viola Davis was wonderful to work with on her portrait for the cover of TIME magazine. I explained that I wanted her to riff on the idea of ‘joy’ through a smile that was simultaneously  real and artificial. This smile seemed to encapsulate all of Hollywood in its false construct of a real human emotion. Being the consummate actor she is, she struck this balance again and again. When I shoot I like to repeat a gesture over and over like a director taking take after take in the hope that something magic may come through. In this case it did!


NS: When you’ve already shot what seems like everyone and everything, what still excites you about your future work? 


MA: I hope to be making images until my last breath. Nothing else feels as real or as meaningful to me as making pictures.

In Between Real And Imagined Worlds With Miles Aldridge


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