In a revealing interview Miles Aldridge talks to Ashley Jouhar on early influences, 90s fashion photography and how at the moment of news-stand success he headed off in a radically different creative direction.
Photographer Miles Aldridge shoots sexy, glamorous women in opulent settings. But all is not what it seems in his pictures. Scratch the surface and a common thread runs through the imagery – the strange ominous unease of the dreamworld. Film-maker David Lynch wrote, “Miles sees a colour coordinated, graphically pure, hard-edged reality”. Artist Glenn O’Brien says Aldridge, “uses impeccable instinct in crafting something like ‘stills’ from the fractured narratives that we normally experience nocturnally and unconsciously.”
Ashley Jouhar interviews Aldridge on his influences and traces the rich visual journey that took from being a graphic design and illustration student, to music promos, to a photographer who has shaped and stretched the idea of the fashion photograph.
Ashley Jouhar: What was your background to taking the kinds of photographs you take now and what was it that kick started your career in photography?
Miles Aldridge: Well, my father [Alan Aldridge] was a famous illustrator and art director so I grew up around quite surreal, psychedelic and sometimes shocking imagery – and it seemed clear to me I would go into the arts and follow my father. So I went to art school to study illustration, which was incredibly liberating – because I had been at Grammar School and none of my fellow students were interested in art. Being at Central St Martin’s around 1983 – surrounded by a lot of like-minded and talented people – the teachers, the studies and the classes were very good and I immersed myself in everything for the first year and then specialised in Graphic Design with an illustration bias.
So at that point you were exposing yourself to all the disciplines – life drawing, filmmaking, illustration, graphic design – the whole lot?
I was also getting exposed to cinema, taking girlfriends on dates to see art movies, not blockbusters. I was seeing David Lynch films and it broadened my horizons immensely.
I did become an illustrator when I graduated from art school but I found it quite boring and I wasn’t anything like my father who was a sort of psychedelic whizz kid right in the middle of swinging London, working with everyone from David Bailey to The Stones and The Beatles. So he was really tapping into the zeitgeist. But I didn’t find the work very challenging and I was still very young so I started making enquiries about pop videos. It seemed to me that the film directors I liked were artists, packaging their thoughts and point of view of the world into hour and a half statements.
A little like you are now doing with your current imagery, except in a photograph?
Yeah, but at that time I had no film training, apart from a couple of days at art so it was all quite new to me. But I bought a Super 8 camera and started shooting films. Then I bumped into Derek Jarman in Soho, who was often drinking tea in the same café I used to hang out in called Maison Bertaux. He was interested in me because I was a good-looking young man and I was interested in him because he was a famous film maker and so we had a few conversations. He was very enthusiastic and encouraging and through this naïve enthusiasm I started to make films. Another person who came into my life then was Sophie Muller, a well known video director who pretty well invented the form, shooting videos for The Eurythmics and many others.
MTV was exploding at this time so it was perfect timing for you, in the right place at the right time?
Yeah, yeah, exactly and actually because of people like Derek Jarman and other like-minded artists were doing Super 8 presentations to music because of its relatively low cost it was very much the film medium for the 80s. You don’t need masses of finance to make a film on Super 8 – the idea is translated quickly to images. So I started making pop videos for a while.
Were you coming up with the concepts for these videos – were they very much ideas-driven shoots?
Yes, very much so and I was good at coming up with the ideas but I wasn’t very good with the music! I would come up with an idea that might be loosely based on something from the universe of Hitchcock, Lynch or Godard and I was aware of cinematic tricks and conceits and would play with those. Like for instance, The Shining – I would do a pop video based on a long corridor with different weird things happening in different rooms but I didn’t really know how to put it all together with the edit. During this time I suppose I would have been known as a middling pop video director and therefore lived in a council flat, didn’t have any overheads as such so was very happy doing the odd pop video and hanging out with my girlfriend, who it transpired wanted to be a model. That’s when I took these photographs of her because she looked very much like the kind of girl of the moment – that sort of grungy, heroin chic sort of look of the time.
I remember it well – the bed-sits and anti-fashion poses.
Yes, and the pictures of her were very well received at Vogue and they asked who had taken them and it was explained that it was this girl’s boyfriend. I was then called in to Vogue to meet them and I had this amazing realisation that instead of all this hard work involved in making videos – starting at five in the morning and ending at five in the morning, horrible food and no money to do anything, I could possibly become a fashion photographer.
So those original pictures, did you imbue them with something that we would recognise now in your work?
Miles Aldridge: No, I shot them all in black and white on Hampstead Heath on a Nikon and the film was dropped into Snappy Snaps… and picked up two hours later and pasted into her portfolio! They were really, to all intents and purposes, a boyfriend photographing his girlfriend. I mean she wasn’t styled and there was no hair and make up and she wasn’t trying to sell any fashion. Because that was what was happening with London photography then, when fashion photography almost slipped into Reportage.
Yes, it was very pared down compared to what had gone before.
Yes, very much so and the heroes of that period were people like Robert Frank and Bruce Davidson and also Richard Avedon’s book ‘In the American West’ was kind of like a bible for that kind of styling.
There was this idea of real people rather than glamorous people being pushed to the forefront and being shown as something heroic and wonderful. So I moved from illustration to video to photography in the space of about six years, I think. I really enjoyed the photography and the early work was really about being locked in studios with very beautiful creatures and trying to think how to photograph them. I didn’t come with any technical knowledge – all I had was an eye that still serves me very well today and those pictures were almost a repetition of the boyfriend/girlfriend pictures earlier where in my imagination, these models who were now wearing fashion clothes and hair and make up were, for that six or seven hours in my studio, my girlfriend. Interestingly, when the hair and make-up and styling was being done and I wasn’t paying any attention at all, I left that up to them. In a way, I liked to rendezvous with the model on the white background and see her there for the first time with my camera.
So at this point your shoots were very spontaneous with what was happening, there were no storyboards planned out or themes?
Yes, it was very spontaneous, it was about having a good time, listening to loud music and being swept up in the energy of a pre-9/11 fashion shoot and I mention 9/11 because after that, the whole world and especially fashion became much more gloomy and serious. Up until that point it was a big party. There was so much energy and money sloshing around and I enjoyed the decadence of it.
When did you start shooting in a more ‘David Lynch-ian’ way with these very considered, choreographed images and sets?
Miles Aldridge: Well, literally all I was shooting was white background pictures for magazines like W and British Vogue. Those pictures were about energy and shapes and in a way my talent was in trying to find graphic shapes on the flat two-dimensional page. I was successful with that kind of work straight away and sort of fell into it but at a certain point I looked at all this work and I remember I was at a magazine store in New York and saw a cover for W magazine, a cover for British Vogue and a cover for a magazine called Vibe – three white background covers, all by me. One could feel really good about oneself with that but for some reason, seeing them all there together I kind of loathed it and wondered where I’d got lost. Because back when I was an art student and even doing pop videos I was much more interested in darker and stranger things and the books I grew up with were books on Hieronymus Bosch and Breugel. The complete opposite of what I was producing, which I thought was trash. I felt really uncomfortable about that, even though my pockets were full of dollars.
So this was the turning point?
I realised that when you get into a photo studio as a photographer, even if you said nothing and were dumb, the picture would still get taken because there is the momentum the stylist, the hair and make up artist and the model bring to the shoot that creates the energy for these pictures to occur. Instead of giving myself up to the madness and the freedom of the shoot, I wanted to put the brakes on it – to divert that energy and create a picture you really want to do in advance.