A Conversation With Photographer Miles Aldridge
Something’s always a little off in Miles Aldridge’s world. The London-based fashion photographer has made his career on images that are almost diabolically surreal—a woman with a perfect lipstick pout, crumpled against a countertop, stabbing a birthday cake; a lady clad just-so in yellow, pushing an empty swing; a disembodied mouth biting into a forkful of spaghetti. The neon-hued weirdness of Aldridge’s shots makes them leap off pages of magazines and into the same psychological territory as early Almodóvar films: All his women are on the verge of a nervous breakdown. (An exception to the rule, perhaps: Aldridge’s wife, model Kristen McMenamy.) Symptoms of Aldridge-mania include: titillation, studious blankness, frenzy. Now, Aldridge-mania is coming stateside. On Thursday, Aldridge opened the first U.S. show of his work at the Steven Kasher Gallery in Chelsea. Today, he publishes Miles Aldridge: Pictures for Photographs (Editions 7L/Steidl), a compilation of his photographs for magazines such as Vogue Italia and Numéro. This week, Aldridge takes over the Fifth Avenue windows at Henri Bendel, re-creating a few of his images with mannequins. Aldridge will be on hand at Bendel’s to open the display and sign books; here, he talks to Style.com about good luck, lots of cats, and puckers.
You studied illustration at Central Saint Martins. How did you wind up a fashion photographer?
To a certain extent, I just got lucky. In London, around ’95, I was dating this girl who was really beautiful, but not beautiful in a particularly model-y way, at least as that was understood at the time. Basically, she was too short. But then Kate Moss came along, and my girlfriend decided she could be a model after all, so she asked me to take some photos of her, which I did. When she showed her book to British Vogue, they asked to see me. Her career never really got off the ground, but that’s how mine started. It was a good time—between Kate and the whole grunge thing, if you were English and could hold a camera, people in New York would meet with you. And my sister, who was a model, let me know that in her experience all photographers were idiots, so therefore I was qualified.
Your photos now have such a distinctive style—was that already in play when you did those test shots for your ex-girlfriend?
No, those photos had a real naturalness and simplicity to them; I think what caught the eye of the people at British Vogue was they expressed, openly, the love I had for my girlfriend. It was as I began working that I realized I wanted to do something a little different. I mean, the prevalent fashion photography when I started out was just appalling to me—lots of glamorous women on yachts, that sort of thing. Fatuous, really. I wanted to do something more complex and strange. I like to show a woman troubled by something secret.
You’ve never stopped illustrating, though. The first part of Pictures for Photographs is composed of the sketches you made before shoots. What made you want to show that work?
The illustrations were the initial inspiration for the book. I sent one of my sketchbooks to Karl Lagerfeld, he thought it was really cool, and he suggested I come to Paris and meet him and Gerhard Steidl at the Chanel couture show. So I packed up my portfolios and dragged them on the Eurostar, and we decided to make a book that was part sketches, part photos. I kind of like the idea that people can take the sketches on their own—obviously, they could go through the sketches and try to find the corresponding photo, but in a way I’d prefer if they didn’t do that, and just looked at them as, I don’t know, my random doodlings of women. I mean, I use the drawings to plan my work—I think it gives me an advantage that way, because I can kind of predict a picture—but then the photograph takes on a life of its own, you know?
Your father, Alan Aldridge, was a seminal illustrator—he was a key figure in the development of the sixties psychedelic aesthetic and collaborated with the Beatles and so on. Is his work an influence on you?
Sure. The whole reason I studied illustration was because I thought it would be cool to be like my dad. But at this point, you know, my inspiration comes from everywhere. There’s a photo in the book of a bottle of spilled ketchup, for example, and that literally came from my seeing my wife spill a bottle of ketchup as she was bringing dinner in for our kids. Good husband that I am, I sat there thinking, how do I make a photo of this? Rather than helping her clean up, I mean. And then there was the time we went to visit her mother in Pennsylvania, and her mother takes care of—I’m going to say dozens, maybe a hundred cats. She’d put food out for them, and all of a sudden these animals would come creeping out of the hedges. That was odd. So I used that. And more generally, it’s like, I always want my models to have a kind of blankness of expression, which I don’t see so much as a blankness as that look of contemplation I see on people’s faces when they ride the bus or wait at the airport. That’s the thing about being a fashion photographer—you spend a good amount of time waiting around in airport lounges and places like that, so you have a lot of opportunity to observe people. And it’s like, there’s a Martin Amis book, The Information, where the main character imagines all the men around him at home at night, crying in bed. In a way, that’s what I’m doing when I’m waiting around.
How did you choose the photographs for the book?
The photographs were edited by me and Gerhard, together. We decided, after looking at all the work, that we wanted to have a rhythm that went between innocence and dirtiness, charm and seediness, happiness and strangeness. So the Virgin Mary pictures go to the couple fooling around in the back of a car, and then onto the happy mother making the cake, and then we see a hand groping at a breast, with the butterflies fluttering around. I wanted there to be a rhythm and a suspense, something to make people turn the page. It’s all sort of an ongoing storyboard for some epic film in my head about women.
How was the process different, selecting images for your Steven Kasher show?
Well, an exhibition, you’re creating more of an artist’s statement, something to be taken in at once. It’s not a linear procedure. So the work was chosen quickly—and violently—to get to the viewer’s reaction. I wound up using the mouth photos as a motif; they’re particular favorites of mine. And I think they make people kind of, you know, take a step back. They still manage to surprise me. I mean, obviously—I shot them, I’ve looked at them God knows how many times, but every once in a while I see one of those photos, and I still have to go, hmmm.