In an industry in which e-mails from strangers are signed xx, in which Twitter beefs spawn over the semantics of a hot dog, in which interview subjects think that, “it was just fab-ulous,” is a considered response, and assessments of taste pass as critical discourse, in this starving blonde stereotype of an industry—fashion—Miles Aldridge is a man apart.
Photographer Miles Aldridge makes the glossiest images—his reds come hard like candy apples—for glossy magazines like Vogue Italia and America, Paradis, Numéro, Wallpaper, and V magazine. Aldridge likens himself to a 17th century painter artfully exercising his own agenda under a system of patronage. Gucci, Pucci, Prada, Sasha, Anja, Ruby—fashion is his medium and his method, but his subject are Eros and Thanatos, sex and death. A Stepford slaughters a birthday cake, a nude stares blank through a banquet of crustaceans, a head over a bed that’s either dead or mid petite mort; Aldridge edits fashion into memento mori.
A patriarchal auteur, Aldridge’s photographs have something of (his listed influences) the psychological daring of Hitchcock’s Psycho, the ego and ennui of Fellini’s more meta films, the cynicism and consumerism of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, and the idealized nudity of the Old Masters. They have precedent in Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton, a technicolor palette, like early experiments in color photography, and star today’s top models.
Last month, Rizzoli published a monograph collection of 270 of Miles Aldridge’s fashion photographs titled I Only Want You To Love Me. Last night, Aldridge launched a show, of same title and work, at the Steven Kasher Gallery in New York. In July, it will move to the Somerset House in London. The book and the shows prove that Miles Aldridge’s work is not limited to the binding of the periodicals it was commissioned for.
In an industry like his, it’s a revelation to hear Miles Aldridge talk; he likes to. And unlike many of his fellow patroned peers, Aldridge doesn’t deflect with an xx or air kiss. He’ll speak candidly, digressively, and philosophically, with ego and a British accent, about the “empire of fashion” and the “fucked world” of which he is a part. He talks so much and with such candor that, for the sake of clarity and propriety, we had to cut viciously from our interview transcript. Still, here it is, running long, but reading well, Miles Aldridge on the world:
Your book opens with a Bret Easton Ellis quote: “We buy balloons, we let them go.” Why Ellis? Why that quote?
I love Bret’s writing. Even just having the name Bret Easton Ellis at the start of my book sets up the reader for what is coming. I found this quote from American Psycho. In a very symbolic way, almost like a Japanese Haiku, it summarized some of the themes of the book in just seven words.
For me, the quote is about how we’re at this stage of human development where we love to covet things and own things. Often those things are bright and colorful, like balloons. But also like balloons, these things we buy do not satisfy us and we let them go. It’s melancholic: we buy things to make ourselves look beautiful, to make ourselves feel like—as men, that we have bigger cocks than the other guy, or as women, that we’re more attractive than the woman next to us.
I’m always struck by how unhappy your models look. I just watched a Clarks advert that my friend is modeling in and she has this fake smile on the whole time. I can’t believe the face she’s making, I’ve never seen her make that face in real life, ever.
I could talk about that for a long time if you want, are you ready?
Photography is a medium of moments; that’s the way it works. But what I’m interested in are images that attempt to last forever. I’m interested in eternity in the way that the Mona Lisa is eternally looking back at us out of a picture frame. I don’t care what the Mona Lisa was doing before or after that image. Her image is eternally present, powerful, and effective, and that’s what I’m interested in: the power of an image to sustain the viewer and to ask questions of the viewer in an intelligent way. In that way, with my work, I’m much closer to the way the painting works. So your friend’s smile, like all smiles, is an attempt at a passing moment of happiness and therefore outside of what I am interested in.
What’s the message that I’m trying to convey? I’m not saying, “I’m unhappy because I consume,” because I have all of these Gucci products or whatever. Humans are more complex than that. The message is that these women are thinking a lot about their lives. Some people look at my work and say, “oh the women are very blank.” Well, that’s true, but I think moments of apparent blankness—when we feel like we’re blank or when we look blank—are often due to the fact that we’re thinking intensely or deeply about our lives. These pictures in my book, they’re pictures of humans not mannequins. They’re troubled, wounded, and confused, questioning who they are now that they have everything they want.
I see that, but they are a certain type of woman. They’re the type of woman who would be—could be—buying the articles that are editorialized.
Right, that’s true. I guess my gaze, my radar is a middle class or upper class white woman. My work here is for fashion. What happened with my work was that, when I started, I had ideas they were quite aggressive, like car crashes, suicides, what I would call first degree statements; angry statements, ugly statements. This was before 9/11, and then 9/11 happened and it was—as a young photographer, trying to take pictures like that—it was the worst thing you could do. You just could not get hired. So I thought about it and I realized that, actually, there’s a way around this. What I can do is take beautiful pictures of beautiful women wearing beautiful stuff and it can be just that: the excess of luxury, the excess of consumer products, the excess of things that you can buy, own, covet. There can be a message in there that’s not quite like suicide or a car crash, but in another way it’s quite the same.
I’m wondering how you see our contemporary moment. It’s hard to define when you’re actually in it, but what do you feel capable of doing now in 2013? Versus, say, September 2001?
I always include whatever I’m interested in, and that includes the Herald Tribune. We are in such a fucking weird place. So that’s always in my bloodstream: the messages from the news of carnage, trickery, and deceit, of brutality, stupidity, and greed; I mean, that’s just page one.
I’ve talked about this parallel before but—Hitchcock’s great shower sequence from Psycho. Hitchcock said he wanted the audience to be confused by their feeling of being aroused sexually while watching a brutal murder. You’re there, in the audience, as a man, watching a woman being hacked up and, at the same time, hoping, possibly, that you might see a bit of her pussy or her breasts or her ass. It’s arousing and disgusting at the same time, and it calls into question your principles and morals. That’s what I’m after: finding that Hitchcockian balance between the disturbing and something that’s attractive.
I noticed there are often families and children in your photographs. That’s unusual and very affective. I was hoping you could talk about the presence of the family.
Well, I’m a father. I have three kids. Up until recently I was actually married, so I know quite a lot about that too. I was also a child of a divorced family myself, so I know quite a lot about that. My book is dedicated to my mother, who was a victim of divorce, meaning she never really picked herself back up after the divorce and died without having much of a life post-marriage. She kept her feelings private behind a mask, and as a young man I was always aware of this woman, and that’s the woman I create in my pictures: this woman, this mother, kind of like Bates in the Psycho hotel. It’s the mother figure who doesn’t speak.
Fashion is the great mask. You feel like shit and you put on your high heels, your dress, you cover up, and off you go. You laugh your way through an evening of champagne and high jinks and frolics, but it’s still there underneath.
My family had a lot of secrets. My father had a secret family while he was married to my mom. They found out about his kids and then he didn’t marry that woman, he married this centerfold from Playboy. I guess I have quite a cynical view of things from that experience. But amongst all that there’s still love.
I was just reminded of something I heard Tom Ford say on the radio when he was doing publicity for A Single Man. He said that when he is the most depressed he puts on his best clothes. That that is when he looks like absolute perfection because he is in an armor.
That’s interesting, I think that’s right. Although I’m not interested in men at all though.
Because I am a man and it’s really weird? I don’t know. I really don’t know. I don’t like looking at them in the way I like looking at women.
Well, you’re straight.
I am straight, there’s that. That probably is all it is. Not any deeper than that.
You have one plus-size model in your book. In one of the images she is pouring milk into her mouth. In another, she is by the toilet. I recently attended an exhibition by another fashion photographer and all of the few plus-size models in his show were also eating something. This is something I notice happens a lot: when we editorialize plus-size models we make the story about their being plus-size.
I wanted to shoot Felicity. I’m aware that my type of model that I photograph is a kind of version of my mother: very pale skin, very beautiful. There are no African-American women in my book. There are no Asian women in my book. There’s one large lady, so to speak. The rest are—well, they’re beauties. They’re a typical Western concept of beauty, which goes back to what I grew up with: my mother’s copies of Cosmopolitan.
When I got to a certain age, I realized that Cosmopolitan was far more interesting than my Spiderman comics. That new awareness of beauty coincided with my mom and dad throwing frying pans or plates at each other across the kitchen. So there are two aspects of women combined in my head: there’s the unhappiness, the tragic, and the angry with the endlessly beautiful, smiling, at peace. I didn’t set out to shoot a “fat” girl because I thought that would be funny. I was aware that Fellini had done some amazing images with large women and I thought that was something I could try.
Yeah, this model, Felicity, is a beauty. She’s still very much a beauty.
My work is not just about beauty, my work is about me, and how I feel about the world. The women in my pictures, they’re like the oil paint or the medium for this message. I use them to explain my message. By having a large person, somebody who’s outside of this typical demographic, then I start saying something about being a large person. Do you see my point? I’m not interested in saying that Felicity is questioning her largeness, I’m interested in the world.
Okay. So, for you, the fashion industry model type can stand in for some everywoman, some blank slate. Like the white whale of Moby Dick, we can project whatever or whoever we are onto it.
I don’t feel it’s my place to be responsible. I don’t at all. I don’t feel it’s my job to kind of make everything nice and easy and say, “you know what, everyone’s equal.” They’re not, it’s bullshit.
You resent the call for an artist to be socially responsible?
Yeah. That’s a different type of work. I’m interested in how we live, the world we live in, what it means to be me. Which is important as an artist—we try to leave behind our story like the trace a snail leaves behind. I think there’s relevant justice in the world. This empire of fashion isn’t based on saving the planet or making people happy. It’s commerce and art. The world is fucked, what a mess. But I don’t feel responsible and I don’t want to change it.
It’d be nice if someone wanted to, you know? I work in the fashion industry and these are things I am hyperconscious of. I love your photographs. I’m not saying you should be socially responsible, I just think it would be nice to see more diversity.
My work is about how displaced, unhappy, and questioning people are about the world. And I think that’s a universal truth. That’s my truth. And I suppose, like I said earlier, being a man, my subject matter is rather attractive, classically beautiful girls. It’s the same shape that’s been used in the history of art for the past 300 years, mostly.
Oh, not true. There’s a little more body diversity there. It’s shifted. Our beauty ideal right now is pretty radically designed for the commerce of the fashion industry.
Oh god, yeah. The stick thin lollipop headed girls. It’s a bizarre creation. But it’s taken awhile to get there.
But symmetry and all of these things are as old as the history that we can write, you’re right.
I walk around museums just like you and I see great breasts all over the place. So we’ve always been obsessed by breasts and pussy and all that stuff.