Miles Aldridge On His Disconnected Subjects
11 May 2013
The glamorous women photographed by Miles Aldridge seem disconnected from their surroundings, yet his unsettling images are adored by the same glossy magazines that they apparently critique.
In 2006, the British photographer Miles Aldridge was presenting a fashion shoot to Anna Wintour, the formidable editor-in-chief of American Vogue. ‘There’s something wrong with this picture,’ she said, pointing to a shot of a glamorous woman in a fast-food restaurant, shoving French fries towards a baby barely old enough to eat solids.
‘I loved that statement,’ Aldridge, 48, says now. ‘She knew there was something wrong, and she wasn’t sure whether to publish. She did in the end, and she got so many complaints. But for sure, if you go to any burger place anywhere in the world, you’ll see mothers feeding babies junk food.’
The fact is, there is always something wrong in Aldridge’s staged, colour-saturated images, a disconnect that makes the viewer uneasy. His models – always women, always gorgeous – stare off into the middle distance, their faces disconcertingly blank. In his latest book, I Only Want You To Love Me, they often appear with children, making this emotional absence even more unsettling: a mother carries an expensive bag in one hand, a baby in the other, equally indifferent to both; a woman walks robotically through boys playing football. Other photographs have a hallucinatory quality: women naked and seemingly unaware of this fact, in inappropriate places; immaculate Stepford Wives at the office, doing housework, in a supermarket, an empty playground are all clearly somewhere else in their heads, lost in thought – or simply lost.
‘These women aren’t blank because they have nothing to say,’ Aldridge says. ‘They are blank because they’re overwhelmed by their world. When somebody is thinking, they look blank. And it’s that moment that I’m trying to capture. When somebody looks lost in thought they’re vulnerable, and you’re able to intrude on that privacy and take a photograph that captures this human being using their brain, trying to clarify how they got to this position. Why are they at the sink washing up, or in the playground pushing a swing with no child in it? To me, the great moments in Hollywood are close-ups of a woman’s face, thinking, and she’s just realised that her whole world is wrong.’
Film references come up constantly with Aldridge, and many of his pictures look like Hitchcock stills or outtakes from one of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s domestic melodramas. He acknowledges both as influences – ‘I love Hitchcock. Stories that suck you in after which you realise you’ve been assaulted by pure image’ – along with Godard, Fellini and, most of all, David Lynch. Seeing Lynch’s Blue Velvet as an art student in London in the 1980s was a pivotal moment. ‘I have never seen anything so troubling presented as glamour,’ he says.
Aldridge’s route into photography was a meandering one: he played guitar in a rockabilly band, then went to art college with the idea of becoming an illustrator like his father, but drifted into directing pop videos. He was not, he says cheerfully, very good at it. ‘Typically, my videos consisted of me making a Godard movie with my girlfriend as the star, with the band sitting grumpily in the corner. Then around midnight my producer would remind me to film the band. Which I would do in one take. Jesus and Mary Chain said it was the worst video they’d been in!’
In the 1990s Aldridge’s girlfriend decided to try modelling, and he took some pictures of her. When she showed them to Vogue there was more interest in the photographs than in her. ‘Within six months I was shooting covers for W magazine in New York,’ Aldridge says, ‘simply because I fitted the criteria: I was from London, I was young, I lived in a council flat, and I didn’t know anything about photography. I remember sitting in the offices of British Elle, and they said, “We’d like to do a story with you.” I thought they wanted me to write something. Eventually I realised, Oh, they mean pictures!’
At first he shot in natural light against a white background. But as film influences crept in, he began staging dreamlike scenarios in the studio, sketching them out beforehand like storyboards. ‘I would watch triple bills of Fellini, Godard and so forth. This was pre-DVD, so if I saw an image I liked in a movie, I had to remember it. And I would feed off it, later. In my studio now, I still have films playing all the time, just so I can feed off the images.’
His father, Alan Aldridge, designed psychedelic record covers for the Beatles and the Stones, and Miles says he ‘grew up in a house filled with his art, a kind of Pop Art house – orange walls.’ But he has begun to see that his mother was also a big influence. ‘In the work there’s often a mother figure who is considering her lot. And my mum’s lot was not much. My parents had an unpleasant divorce, and she was left with the kids. The image of her washing up or cleaning is very present in my work. So while I probably got my boldness with colour from my father, my understanding of wounded women, I think, began with my mother.’
She died of cervical cancer when he was 28. ‘It was shocking to watch her beauty drain away in the space of a summer. My sister and I raised the 14-year-old son she left behind, as his father was unknown, and ours in Los Angeles remarried – a Playboy centrefold. As they say, you couldn’t make it up.’
Twenty years on Aldridge is still drawn to images of damaged women. ‘I guess because of my upbringing, when I see a mother screaming at her child in the street, it stays with me. So if someone asks me to do a picture of a mother and child, I’m unlikely to come up with a happy scene of children running around on a beautiful lawn.’
His images show the beauty of high fashion and luxury items while also questioning whether they can really cure what ails us, and he pulls off an extraordinary balancing act, creating pictures that appear in the world’s greatest fashion magazines while often critiquing the values they represent. Aldridge is well aware of this, and pays tribute to Franca Sozzani of Italian Vogue especially, for her creative vision. ‘It’s not all about the misery of consumerism,’ he adds. ‘It’s about the fascination with the human being as an incredible species capable of amazing things and tragedy – the whole Shakespearean world is wrapped up in every human being, where we’re capable of destroying ourselves and making beautiful children and everything in between.’