The Amplified Reality of Miles Aldridge
1 February 2007
The fashion photographer shares the secrets of his sleek lighting for his many editorial and advertising clients.
‘When Antonioni came to London to make the film Blow-up, he had all of the grass in the park painted green because it wasn’t colourful enough for him,’ notes photographer Miles Aldridge. ‘That’s why an hour and a half of an Antonioni movie is so much more interesting to me than an hour and a half of real life. Because it’s condensed emotion, condensed colour, condensed light.’
Like Michelangelo Antonioni, Aldridge often feels that the real world is an anaemic counterpoint to his own intensely saturated, highly stylized images.
‘If the world were pretty enough, I’d shoot on location all the time,’ confides the 42-year-old, London-based fashion photographer. ‘But the world is just not being designed with aesthetics as a priority. So I prefer to rebuild the world instead of photographing the real one.’
Given his penchant for cinematic expression, it’s not surprising that Aldridge’s photographic style–erotic, urbane, dreamlike and often a little spooky-invites comparisons to the work of Bunuel, Dali, David Lynch, Godard, Hitchcock and Fellini. His work has been described as surrealistic on occasion, but he is quick to reject that characterization.
‘I don’t find surrealism interesting at all, because images can be cold and meaningless if they don’t have any touch of reality to them,’ he protests. ‘My work is not just about a dream, but a dream of reality. It’s all amplified – but it is essentially from reality and essentially contemporary.’
If Aldridge’s perception of reality is slightly different, it may have something to do with his childhood – which sounds like a fantasy of Sixties life.
Born in London in 1964, Miles is the son of Alan Aldridge, a celebrated art director who designed Penguin book covers and album art for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cream and the Who.
Miles grew up surrounded by rock music and pop art, privy to the private banter of his father’s cohorts: Elton John; British fashion and portrait photographer David Bailey; and Eduardo Paolozzi, one of the founders of the British pop art movement.
‘Miles was the sort of kid who got picked up from school by Eric Clapton, had his photograph taken by Lord Snowdon, learned to play the electric guitar, studied illustration at the super hip Saint Martin’s School of Art and then grew up to marry American super-model Kristen McMenamy,’ wrote Jonathan Turner in the press release for Aldridge’s first gallery show, The Cabinet which was recently shown at The Reflex New Art Gallery in Amsterdam.
After art school, Aldridge embarked on a career as an illustrator but found it too solitary a pursuit. Then he purchased a Super 8 camera.
‘I started out shooting these poetic little films about flowers and sunsets,” he recalls. “Then I decided to re-create a memory from a recent trip to Spain of a sunlit tin of sardines being swarmed by flies. So I put some sardines out in the sun in my English garden and waited for the flies to arrive. Then I panned my camera across these silver fish corpses with the black flies buzzing around them and the sun bouncing off of their scales. That’s when I realised that I could create this simplified, amplified version of reality that felt as sexy and sinister as my memory’
A director friend offered him the use of the editing facilities at a local production company to edit his fish footage.
‘At one point, the boss of the company discovered me at the editing console after hours and asked me what I was doing there. I explained that I was interested in making films, and with nothing to lose, he gave me a song and asked me to come up with an idea for a music video.’
That chance encounter led to a three-year stint as a music video director. During this period, Aldridge shot some still images of his girlfriend, an aspiring model who took her portfolio on a go-see to British Vogue. Aldridge’s work caught the eye of the magazines editors, who asked him to come in for a meeting.
‘That’s when the lightbulb went off in my head,’ says Aldridge, ‘and I decided to have a go at being a photographer.’
Soon he was shooting editorial assignments for the Independent and the Guardian.
‘One of my first assignments was a portrait of the playwright Christopher Hampton,’ Aldridge recalls. ‘So I called a photographer friend and asked how one would go about doing such a shoot. He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll send my assistant down to meet you and I’ll order all of the equipment. When I got to Christopher’s house, I found all of these steel boxes full of HMI lights, tungsten, strobes and film in the hallway, along with a phone message that read ‘Your assistant can’t make it.’ While I was absorbing that news, Christopher offered me a glass of wine, We shared one bottle and then another. And then he said, ‘Maybe we should do this picture.’ So I rummaged around in the pile of equipment and found a Nikon, the only thing that I recognized and knew how to load. We went onto the top floor of his house, where the last rays of the sunset were trickling in through the window. I knew a little bit about photography from shooting the music videos, so I set my lens wide open at a thirtieth of a second. Christopher was wearing these round John Lennon glasses. I focused on them and he went out of focus. And it turned out to be a great picture. It was one trick, but it worked. That was the beginning of me bluffing my way through photography!’
By then, Aldridge was in his late twenties. The year was 1993, and grunge had burst onto the British alternative music scene.
Aldridge says, ‘lt seemed like you only had to be the right age and listen to the right music to be a part of this scene. And you were actually in a great position to become a fashion photographer because people were looking for a new breed of photography, which was clearly seen in the British Invasion with models like Kate Moss, great stylists of that period like Melanie Ward and photographers like Glen Luchford, David Sims and Corinne Day. I knew these people from being in London and directing music videos. So I got this chance to be David Hemmings in Slow-up.’
Within six months of his portrait session with Christopher Hampton, Aldridge was shooting covers for W magazine.
‘It was all, I think, an outgrowth of what you would call the zeitgeist,’ he muses. ‘Part of the allure of the photographers coming out of the grunge world was that you really weren’t a professional photographer.’
‘Without much effort, really, I found myself with an agent in New York, being talked about as a new British photographer. At the time, I hadn’t really done that much. But that’s New York: You can take something small and make it big.’
Over the past decade, Aldridge’s fiercely original, impeccably rendered vision has landed him assignments for magazines such as British Vogue, Paris Vogue, American Vogue, Vogue Italia, The Face, Numero and The New York Times Magazine as well as advertising for YSL, Armani, Longchamp, Loreal, Hugo Boss and Paul Smith. His schedule keeps him shuttling between London (where he lives with his wife and three children), Paris, Spain, Italy, New York and L.A.
Today, he is offhanded, almost self-effacing, about his creative and commercial success. He talks about being in the right place at the right time, about masquerading as something that he was not during the early stages of his career. But his imagination is inexhaustible.
Even the biography on his Web site www.milesaldridge.com offers a refreshing departure from the usual. In place of the standard spin about clients and awards, he has inserted a bizarre little movie —- a grainy sequence of stills that lurches along, complete with dust and scratches —- with a distorted soundtrack and white subtitles that distil 42 years of a complex and variegated life into 16 seminal moments:
I am born in London in 1964.
My father is an art director.
He puts my mother on a book cover.
Lord Snowdon photographs me with my father.
I study books.
Go to rock concerts.
Learn to play the guitar.
Practice photography on my sister.
Join a rockabilly band.
Go to art school.
Become a fashion photographer.
Meet an American model.
And have children.
Then the little movie fades to black. The funky music continues with robotic regularity, like something an organ-grinder’s monkey might churn out at a roadside carnival. The message: Aldridge may be a fabulously successful fashion photographer, but he is a film director at heart.
PDN: You’ve spent nearly a decade in the studio, eschewing the real world for a reconstructed version of reality. How did you get into studio shooting?
Aldridge: I’ve always felt that I needed my aesthetic to be incredibly precise. Earlier in my career, I dismissed the prospect of going on location because I found London reality to be so drab. The colours were never right and I couldn’t find the right backgrounds for the dramas that I wanted to photograph. So I spent a lot of time designing pictures in my bead, which I then recreated in studio settings. I made it harder for myself i in many ways by keeping things in the studio, but that also gave my work its look. I love those old Douglas Sirk Hollywood films from the Fifties, with scenes like Rock Hudson chopping wood in a forest. The sets in those films were all constructed on soundstages. At the time, they were probably frustrated by their inability to recreate reality, but they did a good job of trying, I and they sometimes created scenes that were more picturesque than reality and sort of fabulous. Fellini constructed a lot of his sets at the Cinecittà Studio in Rome. For me, this ‘Cinecittà approach’ meant that if you want- i ed to shoot a canal in Venice, you built it. So I became attracted to that aesthetic and – regardless of bow complicated it seemed – I preferred to construct the set and the setting, rather than trying to find it. If you want to make a forest, it can be all pure forest; you don’t have the encumbrance of farm machinery or someone’s hut in the background. More often than not, I prefer that Cinecittâ version of the real thing.
PDN: Yet, lately, you’ve left the studio behind to shoot in real-world locations, warts and all. Why the change of heart?
Aldridge: My studio years were a time of finding my visual language. Now I feel that I can take a picture almost anywhere and it will have my aesthetic. I like shooting in bright sunlight on the West Coast. I also like the graphic style of many of the buildings there. Even a hot dog stand can have a clean, graphic look that you can’t find anywhere else, unless you build it in the studio.
PDN: That said, you’re famously exacting about your choice of location. What do you look for in a location?
Aldridge: I’m insanely precise about my locations. This comes from the years when I refused to leave the studio, when I was in what I call my ‘Cinecittá period.’
The two things that are going to let the photo down are a bad location and bad light. So with that in mind, I try to get a great location by doing an incredible scout. I will let a location scout do the initial rummaging around and then I will get out there and do the rest myself. I’m very quick at deciding if a location will work or not. When I find a location that I like, I can see the possibilities instantly – whether a house will be big enough to fill the frame or if the light is coming from the right direction. Sometimes I will revisit a location at different times of day to see what the light is doing.
PDN: It sounds like you leave very little up to chance.
Aldridge: [Laughs.] I plan every shoot out with military style. I’m detail obsessed.
PDN: Is it true that you will often use many different locations to create one “composite location” for a fashion story?
Aldridge: Yes. Just recently, I did a shoot for Vogue about a mother taking her child to see The Wizard of Oz. I looked at more than a hundred cinemas in New York for this job. One cinema had great seats, but it didn’t have anything else that I wanted to photograph. Another had a great ticket booth. So I shot the models buying tickets at one theatre, watching the movie at another, on the fire escape at another and so on. And together, all of these different locations made the world’s greatest cinema.
PDN: What’s more important to you, lighting for mood or lighting to make the model look good?
Aldridge: The girl looking good makes the mood good.
PDN: How did you learn to light?
Aldridge: The aesthetic of grunge photography was daylight studio light, very fiat light. So I started out shooting a girl in a daylight studio, where I didn’t have to do any lighting. That worked fine for six months or so. But one November day quite early in my career, I was working in a daylight studio in London and there was no more daylight after two p.m. My assistant said, ‘I’ll just put up some lights and bounce them into foamcore.’ So I progressed from using daylight studio light to the strobe equivalent of that. That stood me in good stead for a while. I would advise anyone starting out in photography to do that for six months, because you forget about lighting and you can just think about what’s in front of the lens. It took me about a year to creep in a silver umbrella to give me some sparkle and then, shot by shot, I just got bolder with my lighting.
I remember reading once about an artist who was told, ‘You have to make the canvas afraid of you, you’re in charge.’ I liked that. I didn’t want to be afraid of this bloody white studio! So I began staying late at the rental studios after my shoots were over, experimenting with the lights in the equipment room. I learned a lot that way now, I don’t have any fear. I feel that the worst thing that can happen is that you can try something you don’t like and then you just turn the light off. Once you’ve shot your first 20 miles of film and you get your wings, you can do anything.
PDN: Is there anything specific that you strive for in your lighting?
Aldridge: ‘Shiny modern.’ That’s the way I see the world. Moody stuff doesn’t feel very contemporary to me. And being contemporary is very important for fashion photography. It should feel like the work is happening now.
PDN: Everything in your photos is usually in focus. Why is that?
Aldridge: In my pictures, everything is sharp because that’s the way I perceive reality. If I’m in the room and there’s a door over there and a copy of The New York Times on the floor and a half-drunk bottle of Evian on the floor, in my head, all of that is in focus, even though the camera might not naturally record everything in focus. With the right lighting and lenses, everything can be sharp and readable, and that seems more genuine to me. From the Dutch Masters to Caravaggio to Constable, basically all of the paintings before photography existed were about explaining something that was happening in front of the artist, and why would you paint it out of focus, unless it was a foggy day?
PDN. What role does colour play in your images?
Aldridge: I am interested in the use of colour to evoke mood. I’ve always felt that colour was a more interesting challenge than black and white. Black-and-white photography always felt kind of vintage to me; it didn’t quite feel like the world I was living in. Instead, I would watch an Almodóvar film and think, ‘That feels very good, that bowl of oranges on that white tablecloth.’ In Juliet of the Spirits, one of Fellini’s first colour films, he used colour in an incredibly artistic way. I was very inspired by that because it was not decorative colour, but real colour expressing the requirements of the scene in such a vivid way. Dario Argento, the Italian horror film director, lit his films in these incredible colours. It was amazingly bold; he was not trying for realism at all. It was such an expressionistic use of colour, creating a very visceral experience of the drama. I also found Wong Kar wai’s In the Mood for Love very inspiring. When someone walks into a room and it’s blue, it’s totally expressionistic. It’s a way of turning on certain responses in the brain-not just colour for decorative purposes. I like taking those tricks of cinema and applying them to photography.
PDN: What role does light play in your images?
Aldridge: Light helps me tell a story. It says night time or daytime, it conveys a spooky feeling or a happy feeling, it’s instantly evocative. But you have to be able to leave it alone as well. You can do great pictures with very raw lighting: You don’t have to light everything with a perfect balance. Although your picture can look like a painting, you don’t have the burden of doing a Rembrandt or a Caravaggio. I’m a big fan of crime photography, like the Weegee crime photos taken during the 1940s, with a single light that has exploded over the image. I think that kind of lighting can be incredibly powerful. For me, lighting is not about showing off with sexy lights or lighting tricks. That’s like playing the piano very fast – what does it prove? What people really applaud is beauty.
PDN: How do you conceive of your lighting for a particular assignment?
Aldridge: I always start with a model and prop. I figure out the spatial relationships and then place the lights where I think they are meant to go. It’s not a big mystery to me. The key light has to be coming from roughly the same direction as the lens. That’s just the way I’ve grown up thinking that lighting should be-to pick out the person in the foreground. I guess that’s the movie influence, the Hollywood style. From there, every picture has its own little foibles and problems, and I tweak the lighting as I go.
PDN: Are there any givens to your lighting?
Aldridge: The lighting pattern that I often use is a key light from the front, which will be pretty much exposed at the camera setting, not overexposed. Then I have what I call a clip [edge] light, which is from the back, and that is traditionally overexposed by a couple of stops. The key and the clip are both hard lights, and then I add a soft source to fill in the shadows. I don’t like black shadows; I like to have them slightly lit. I also feel that the shadows should be slightly blue, which is probably related to the way that those old Hollywood movies looked. Sometimes I’ll use another light for a special effect, and I’ll use colour from a certain palette that I like: an acid yellow, a grey blue.
I usually start by reading the fill, a big fiat light, and get that up to a certain level. Then I’ll get the key a stop or so above that and the clip a stop or so above that. If I want something more mysterious, I might make the key a stop or two beneath the camera setting. I may also make the ratio between the clip and the key 3 stops different so that the edges are very overexposed.
PDN: Do you always use a fill source?
Aldridge: If I’m using a hard key light, it’s always supplemented by fill light. I don’t like the way that bard light without fill rakes across the skin and shows pores. For me, it feels slightly amateurish to use a hard light like that.
PDN: The Profoto ProFresnel seems to be a favourite lighting tool of yours.
Aldridge: Yes, that’s my staple light. Every time I’m in the studio, I always have a Fresnel and a beauty dish on hand. I love the Fresnel because it is obviously very cinematic in terms of its ability to cast very hard shadows. Because it i5 a somewhat large source, with a front lens about 12 inches in diameter, instead of getting a raw source reflected on the skin, I get a bigger, softer light reflected on the face, And because it can be focused, I can get a nice shadow edge on the jaw-a hard edge with a soft light. It’s as close as I can come with strobe to a cinema light because it’s basically the same concept as a regular Fresnel, which is the staple of all those movie guys from an earlier era.
PDN: Do you pre-light your sets?
Aldridge: When I first started shooting, I always tried to schedule a pre-light day. I’ve since learned that you don’t need a pre-light if you know enough tricks. Now I usually light on the day of the shoot unless the art director wants a day to experiment and I’m always ready before the hair and makeup people are finished.
PDN: What’s your biggest challenge as a photographer?
Aldridge: To keep things fresh. Quite a lot of my work is editorial and nobody wants to see an editorial that I’ve done before. Whatever I am shooting that day has to be different than what I did before. But I’m not daunted by that. I like the challenge and F feel that a lot of pictures that still need to be taken haven’t been done yet. I have a lot of ideas and each day I think of another one.
PDN: What do you see for the future?
Aldridge: I am really enjoying all of the challenges at the moment. Working for American Vogue and doing work on location has opened up so many more avenues for me. I feel incredibly emboldened to go and shoot in places where I wouldn’t have dreamed of shooting before. I am really excited about the future and where the work is going to take me. Someday, I would like to take everything I’ve learned from still photography and use it for film-to figure out how to make these colour pictures move.