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Country and Town House on Miles Aldridge 'Beyond the Beautiful'

Beyond the Beautiful

Beneath its pop print colours and beautiful women, artist and photographer Miles Aldridge’s work goes more than skin deep, says Rosalyn Wikeley

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Miles Aldridge has been invited to New York by Time Magazine to shoot their ‘100 most influential people’ front cover for their April issue. I catch the British fashion photographer and artist while he’s taking a breather from New York’s ‘machine’, skyping me from his all white hotel room in rolled-up T and dishevelled hair.

 Miles, 53, is no stranger to the city. He played a pivotal role in the nineties fashion scene, when ‘magazines ruled the world and you could work every hour of every day’, photographing fashion story after fashion story, svelte models with wide smiles. It was amid this noisy backdrop of saturated/clichéd beauty that Miles forged an artistic philosophy that would fast become his trademark as a photographer. Other key influences comprised a design wizard father Alan Aldridge, a Central St Martins homoerotic directive (more of this later), and a sweet veneration for the provocative story tellers of film and photography – Hitchcock, David Lynch, Frederick Felini, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Irvin Penn. Miles’ bright, erotically charged photography aligns itself more with film than photography’s traditional role of documentation. His distinctly cinematic style seeks to ‘suspend disbelief and transport to a world where things are more interesting, more exciting, more beautiful’. His work has been acknowledged and showcased in Weird Beauty at the International Center for Photography in New York in 2009, and also in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum in the UK.   

 Miles’ uses his photo fiction to scrutinise beauty, harnessing its easy allure with bright, vivisect colour and otherworldly women. From lip-stained cigarettes aggressively sizzled into bright orange egg yolk to sexually charged, yet somewhat dazed beauties, sprawled among smashed plates and broken homes, he has created a psychedelic, pop print world of film and tale, bound into single shots. An avid disciple of Hitchcock, he is infatuated by the nuanced, dual dynamic of attraction and repulsion… revealing the disturbing, ugly, side of beauty using beauty itself.

  This ease with beauty and colour can be traced back to the bright orange pop-art rooms of Miles’ 1960s childhood home in London. His father literally traded in the stuff as a noted psychedelic designer and then there were colourful links – close family friends included Eric Clapton and John Lennon. Ethereal beauty was ordinary. Miles sister, Saffron, was a model in Paris later to be the face of Ralph Lauren, while half-sisters Lily and Ruby have graced renowned runways and billboards world over. But Miles is quick to dismiss that such connections guaranteed him a seat at the table. Alan Aldridge’s shoes were tough ones to fill. While first pursuing a career in illustration in the 80s, Miles found his work routinely eclipsed by his father’s reputation: ‘You wanted to show them your drawings, your photographs… and all these art directors had such kind of huge respect for my father that actually it was quite difficult’. It wasn’t until Miles left Central St Martins, that he started to flex his directing muscle. He moved out of his father’s shadow, still keeping those early lessons in illustration and colour that would later resurface as ‘photo-fiction’.

 The homoerotic art of Miles’ Central St Martins illustration course was a key influence on his work. ‘All my tutors were gay, and this had the effect of bringing my attention to a lot of gay artists, like Hockney… I’m not gay, but these drawings and paintings did influence me.’ As did the homoerotic photographs in Bruce Weber’s Rio de Janeiro book and Richard Avedon’s powerful portraiture in In the American West.   

 Miles never chased photography, it ambushed him during his 1980s stint making pop videos, (‘in the late 80s pop videos were an interesting medium… I was a moth to a flame’). He wistfully recounts shooting a video for the Verve, cross dressing lead singer Richard Ashcroft and his own girlfriend in his Bethnal Green Council Flat; ‘this wouldn’t happen in this day and age… Richard had a bath in my flat then we got to work and started shooting.’ Miles helped this girlfriend, an aspiring model, shoot her portfolio on Hampstead Heath. A Vogue casting later and the model wasn’t hired but Miles was – they liked his pictures and ‘wanted to talk’. He was whipped up in a tornado of 90s commercialism, suddenly finding himself in New York with an agent…’I bluffed my way through it… God, it happened so fast, I don’t really understand quite what happened.’ He found his forte photographing women and models: ‘I kind of connected with them like a director, created quite beautiful images of them’. Miles was soon churning out front covers and fashion shoots en masse for American Vogue, Numéro Num, The New York Times and The New Yorker.

 But he eventually tired of the ‘inane grinning and pictures of pretty girls’. He found it sickening and pointless. Moreover he lamented his lack of vision and voice, shown by his heroes – ‘I had a conversation with myself: “You like David Lynch movies? Correct, yes you do. OK, you like paintings by Egon Shiele, and you like melancholy music by Benjamin Britten, right? So why the hell these stupid dumb pictures?”’ Miles picked up pen and paper, dusting off his illustrator storyboard and paired this with the directing panache from his music video days. ‘It’s not about the girl, it’s the fact she’s in a story and we – the audience – root for her to win… I’d do scenarios and drawings, taking them to studios.’ Feedback came thick and fast from notables such as David LaChapelle, encouraging this change in direction. Italian Vogue’s Franca Sozzani saw Miles’ potential to assist her mission of ‘visual stories’, conquering the magazine’s Italian language obstacle for more global appeal. Work would be less, his offering more limited, but his creative energy had been stirred. Miles had a message worth communicating.

   As an ongoing inquiry, Miles took his camera to beauty as a concept, scrutinizing and studying it, revealing the pain that lay behind it. He saw his role in photography as subtly and perversely exposing these cracks: ‘it seemed that the most beautiful people I knew were some of the unhappiest’. Splashes of loud colour was used to lure in the audience averse to these ‘truths’, unwittingly trespassing into private territory and into ‘uncomfortable’ sadness. Miles convinces me this is the real point of art, where created images are difficult to read, yet ‘potent in their ability to make you question things’. His preference for nuance is surprising, given the pop-art lustre of most of his images, and yet integral to his message. This closely emulates a Hitchcockian knack for exposing weakness, lifting truths and base desire hidden behind a screen of morality. Miles cites the shower scene from Psycho (1960), fascinated that, despite the flash of blades as Janet Leigh is murdered, a male audience, while repulsed, is pulled in by her naked body. Similarly, Miles relishes the thought that the owners of his paintings claim they make them smile, ‘I like that because even though there’s darkness to the work, it’s kind of lubricated by humour, so it’s a whimsical, satirical sarcastic view of life.’  

 With New York and its factory fashion-photography behind him, Miles took refuge in London’s leafy Highgate. He escapes every morning with a swim on Hampstead Heath ‘it gives me a moment of being alone, with myself, to get through the icy water’. Perhaps London best reflects Miles’ photography: vast and colourful, awash with theatre, ‘old fashioned but all regenerating’. It is the only city where he feels at peace ‘and can just get things done’.

 And there is a lot to be done. He has just finished a project with Italian artist, Maurizio Cattelan, renowned for his satirical sculptures, especially ‘La Nona Ora’, which will be unveiled at Photo London this May. They share a fascination with the appeal-repulse tug and decided to collaborate, cooking up an idea of a fashion scene with no fashion – think models interacting with Maurizio’s famous Hitler, or his Pope.

 Social media? Instagram? The photographer has his reservations. The likes-over-content culture has autocratic tendencies, sacrificing talent at the altar of numbers, ‘if they don’t have enough Instagram likes, people don’t take them seriously, it’s a real issue – one hopes it won’t last forever.’

 For Miles Aldridge’s prints, visit Lyndsey Ingram’s Gallery, 28 Mount Street, London/or online at lyndseyingram.com. E. info@lyndseyingram.com T. +44 (0)20 7581 8664. New gallery to open this summer at 20 Bourdon Street, London (off Berkeley Square, Mayfair)

Miles Aldridge ‘I Only Want You To Love Me #1’ Chromogenic print, 2011.