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Miles Aldridge, Self Portrait

Please Return Polaroid: An Interview with Miles Aldridge

15 May 2016 Tom Faber

Miles Aldridge rose to fame for his arresting fashion photo spreads for the likes of Vogue Italia, The New Yorker and GQ. His images are often brightly coloured and dreamlike, yet they often harbour unsettling undercurrents. His beguiling new exhibition displays Polaroids gathered from shoots across his career, behind-the-scenes snapshots from the world of fashion. We chatted to him about gender, cameras and consumerism.

“It’s not my intention that the women in my photos are blank or passive characters,” says Miles Aldridge when I question the trademark dislocated stare of his models. “They’re not blank because they’re without feeling or thought. They’re so intensely feeling and thoughtful, confronted by the consumerist world in all its horror and strangeness. They’re dumbfounded by it. I want them to have so much feeling that they turn to stone.”

Aldridge’s images are typically set in fantastical twists on familiar environments, hyper-saturated kitchens and bedrooms with warped colour palettes. There’s a cinematic quality to both the sets and the poses, as if a story is unravelling from a single still. The subjects of the photographs, no matter what they’re wearing, tend to be curiously blank-faced women, perfectly poised like dolls. This lends the photos an eeriness quite unlike normal spreads in fashion magazines.

What brought Aldridge, one of the fashion world’s most distinctive and successful photographers, to cast such a cynical, pessimistic gaze on the industry that nourishes and lionises him? His upbringing surely holds clues. Aldridge was surrounded by celebrity growing up, but his childhood was not easy. His father Alan designed record covers for the likes of The Beatles, and left his mother for California and a Playboy Playmate. This left his mother to pick up all the slack. Aldridge has mentioned that the surreal domestic scenes in many of his fashion spreads are inspired by memories of his mother at this time. She died suddenly from cancer at 49, leaving a 14 year-old son that Miles and his sister Saffron had to bring up.

Yet Aldridge’s worldview cannot entirely be attributed to family trauma. His sister broke out, and spent much of the 90’s modelling as the face of Ralph Lauren. After a few years in bands and making music videos, Miles was catapulted into the world of fashion photography when a headshot he sent of his aspiring model girlfriend received a call back for the photographer rather than the model. More than twenty years later Aldridge has carved out an impressive space in the fashion world, working frequently with Vogue Italia and a number of other glossy magazines. But the unsettling qualities in his photographs remain.

 

Venus Smiles – Study III, 2011. © Miles Aldridge

 

“I think the role of the fashion photographer and any artist is to record and reflect back the world we live in.” The world that Aldridge perceives, where insidious consumerist messages crawl out from every radio and newspaper, infects his work with a sense of anxiety. “All the things that we buy to make us feel better don’t work. Even once we have the house and the yacht and the family, we can still be incredibly discontent with our lot.”

This dissatisfaction has only increased since social media has made our belongings more public and therefore more enviable. “Everything’s now available. It’s a bit like Spotify - every song is now available so you can’t find anything to listen to. You have everything at your fingertips, every sensation, every sexual perversion can be gratified, and we’re still hideously unhappy.” In light of these statements his subjects take on a social undercurrent. His work becomes a satire of, in his words, “people aspiring to a perfect world of idyllic happiness where their financial success is a form of protection from the world.”

He’s not unaware of the irony in the fact that he despises consumerism while working in the fashion industry, a world that uncomfortably straddles the domains of art and commerce. As with any world, there have been great artists - Aldridge names Yves Saint Laurent and Rei Kawakubo. His problem is not with shopping as a whole, “but the message from advertisers is so trite and ridiculous with various slogans and banners about freedom. The t-shirt equals freedom - but you have to buy it,” he jokes darkly. “It’s an ongoing story with pop culture as far as what things signify, what they mean, what they really mean, what we think they mean. It’s a very complex role that the arts play in consumerism.”

 

Short Breaths - Study, 2012. © Miles Aldridge

 

Aldridge finds women the best subjects to present his domestic dystopia, but he does have occasion to shoot men, too. It’s a very different experience. “With a female model I know I’m working more like a director, creating a fictional character which can represent this fractured, broken universe I’ve described.” Yet his male subjects, who he prefers to be actors rather than models, are not so submissive to his direction. “It’s like you go into a boxing ring with each other and beat out what the image is about,” he said of a recent shoot with Ralph Fiennes. If the photoshoot becomes a battlefield, the camera becomes an instrument of power. Aldridge describes how it forces a strange play of intimacy between photographer and subject. “[It’s] a way of getting very close to people without them seeing you, you’re hidden by it. It gives you a strange confidence to say how you feel about the subject in front of you. It’s like a one-way mirror, you can see them but they can’t see you.”

His latest exhibition is something a little different. ‘Please Return Polaroid’ is dedicated to Polaroids, the photographer’s trusty tool. These were traditionally used to check colour and lighting before taking photos in pre-digital shoots. Rather than artfully staged set pieces, these images capture ephemeral moments behind-the-scenes of a photoshoot.

Aldridge still shoots on film and has amassed lots of Polaroids from his two decades of photoshoots. But he didn’t find it hard to choose a selection for the book. “The ones I gravitated to were the superstar ones. They were completely mesmerising to me as a purveyor of photography, not just as the person who made the pictures. They were produced by me on my photoshoots and then discarded and so it’s going back through the archive boxes and looking at them and finding these behind-the-scenes or slightly off moments from the process that I hadn’t looked at since being in the studio. They were incredibly fresh and exciting to me.”

It’s not just a glimpse at the photographer’s working method that Polaroids offer. As with any change in camera, the quality of the image itself is different. “Polaroids are much softer than film in terms of sharpness, contrast and colour richness. They’re gentler than the final image I’ll get on film.” Crucially, Polaroids are all unique. “There’s no negative for a Polaroid, you can’t reproduce it.” In a world dominated by images and files that are instantly reproducible, the mere existence of a one-off object is a form of resistance.
 

Miles Aldridge: Please Return Polaroid is on as part of Photo London from 16th - 21st May at Lyndsey Ingram in Jermyn St.

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