The year is 1964: Dr Martin Luther King, Jr receives the Nobel Peace Prize; Beatlemania travels to the US; Andy Warhol’s Shot Marilyns are produced; Bob Dylan releases ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’; and, in London, Miles Aldridge is born.
Artist and fashion photographer Miles Aldridge reminds us that art is an ever-evolving dialogue between history, culture, society and politics. With bursts of technicolour ingenuity reminiscent of his 1960s childhood home, his work is a brazen exploration into the nuances of human behaviour. The camera his vehicle, people his fuel, he shines the spotlight on our most primitive emotions; bringing to the surface contradictions lurking beneath beauty. His clever in-your-face compositions scream rude awakenings about pain penetrating illusions of perfection.
Among Miles’ inspirations are his father Alan Aldridge, who created the hallucinogenic album covers for the Beatles; Franca Sozzani, late editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue; as well as screen icons, David Lynch, Federico Fellini, and Alfred Hitchcock – masters in constructing narratives. Like our storyteller Greats, Miles Aldridge’s imagery captures our attention, fills our imagination and challenges perceptions, ultimately presenting us an opportunity to gain new understanding.
While men do feature as subjects (personal favourite is Peter Dinklage in his “Game of Thrones” TIME Magazine cover shoot, 2017) – taking the lead role in Aldridge’s bright, dramatic narratives are a glamorous cast of femme fatales; off-and-on-screen luminaries of artists, models and actresses including Marina Abramovi? (“Art History”, 2010), Frances Coombe (Vogue Italia, 2014), and Marcia Cross (The Sunday Times, 2005).
The optimistic oversaturated introduction is misleading: a closer look reveals near-expressionless faces and disturbing scenes designed to unnerve; and, not unlike our first Hitchcock experience, Miles’ images leave you with a lingering sense of unease. Sexed-up housewives and real-life mannequins, his subjects, oft trapped in the grips of domestic life, fill the frame with equal measure of fascination and trepidation; this is everyday reality on acid.
His stylistic approach can be attributed, in part, to growing up with his graphic designer father, studying illustration and graphic design at Central Saint Martins, and also to briefly (early 90s) working as an illustrator and directing music videos for the likes of The Verve, Catherine Wheel and The Charlatans.
Oft starting with storyboard drawings, and involving pre-shooting on Polaroid, one might suggest the photographic process, for Miles, carries as much weight as the final image. (Make sure to read his book Please Return Polaroid, published in 2016 and featuring two decades of these behind-the-scenes snaps.) The end result is cinematic and hard-hitting: a magnetic first encounter to a reality dipped in nuance and painted in psychedelia (a palette reminiscent of his father’s illustrations during the 60s and 70s); a reality about which David Lynch quoted: “Miles sees a colour coordinated, graphically pure, hard-edged reality.”
Miles makes us take a hard look at the culture of consumerism, consumption and instant gratification; for instance, in ‘A Drop of Red’ (2001), the frame shows only the pointy shoes of a young girl (is it Alice?) standing on an Alice in Wonderland-chequered floor splattered with blood oozing from a smashed (was it dropped?) Heinz ketchup bottle.
To me, his smart composition – broken (shards of glass) and in parts (the model largely out of frame) – points at a broader disconnect permeating consumer culture. Perhaps, most important, are the questions his work raises – it isn’t so much about finding the ‘right’ answers, as it is about asking the ‘right’ questions.
Aldridge has captured audiences worldwide with solo exhibitions (“The Cabinet”, his first, in 2006; “Art History”, 2018); group exhibitions (“Archaeology of Elegance” in 2002; most recent being “Pure ‘Joy'”, 2019); and collaborations with artists including Maurizio Cattelan, Harland Miller, Gilbert & George.
His large-scale retrospective, entitled “I Only Want You to Love Me”, took place in the summer of 2013 at Somerset House in London, and, thanks to publisher Rizzoli, was accompanied by a special edition book of the same title. His permanent collections feature in New York’s International Center for Photography, and, on home-soil in The British Museum, London’s National Gallery, and the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Beyond the gallery walls, Miles Aldridge is a name perhaps most familiar for gracing the covers of the very magazines which pioneered the genre with the arrival of Harper’s Bazaar (1867); and later with Vogue (1892); another notable contributor to the movement was fashion magazine La mode practique (1898). From pop culture to politics, fashion photography reminds us of art’s ubiquitous place in history.
Even in the modern era, the power of fashion photography to sell, convince, describe, inform, and captivate an audience continues to evolve. It is a far cry from its beginning in history, but it continues to change with the passage of time.
And history, as they say, was very much in the making – or printing, rather. The turn of the 20th century brought with it the necessary advances in technology, namely halftone printing, for magazines to print fashion photographs. And in April of 1911 the first-ever modern fashion photography shoot was born when photographs by Edward Steichen depicting gowns designed by couturier Paul Poiret featured in Art et Decoration. Following its pop culture debut, the genre would be forever immortalised in the photographs of Irving Penn, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Martin Munkacsi and Richard Avedon.
Avedon, the 1930s fashion photographer and one of Aldridge’s inspirations, is famed for transforming the genre and the role of the fashion photographer; The New York Times quoting “his fashion and portrait photographs helped define America’s image of style, beauty and culture”. Aldridge, like Avedon, celebrates, captures, questions and challenges our view of the modern women and ideologies surrounding beauty; Aldridge’s images, vividly arresting, beg for further exploration.
Zooming out, we see emerging in Miles’ artistic journey a rather spectacular, organic conflation of art, popular culture and history. Real synergy flows in this story about an artist poignantly shaped by the layered socio-cultural and artistic landscape he’s championing and challenging present-day. The symbiotic process of him being featured in the titles that spearheaded the genre narrates the importance of Today in shaping Tomorrow; new ideas become old ideas, which take on new meaning when discovered by the next generation of storytellers breathing life back into them.
To me, Aldridge’s work captures the tone of this greater narrative with shock-tactic eloquence, playing out a theme as old as time itself: our quest to make sense of our world and our place in it.
While the end of last year and the start of 2019 (with “Darkness on the edge of town” in London; and “Pure ‘Joy'” in Chicago, respectively) shows Miles’ artistic journey move from editorial to more exhibition-focussed – his ability to provoke and intrigue with disquieting visual narratives remains resolute.