“He came into his own in the 70s. He was such a pervy, dark guy, but I think that vision suited that world of the 70s…” Miles Aldridge on influences, fashion and social commentary.
In the second part of our exclusive Miles Aldridge interview, the avant-garde fashion photographer talks to Ashley Jouhar about the transition to a different creative vision, and the contrasting influences of Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton
The transition you made to the kind of imagery that we associate with you as a photographer now… how did you go about creating that imagery?
Well as an example, I had this idea for a photograph that took place in a car, with the exhaust coming through a window. That could still work as a photo. I wanted to do a series like that but what other ideas could I come up with? I went through the other ideas and they were all to do with suicide! That’s how it started to happen.
The people I worked with were very accommodating, especially Italian Vogue. I’d done white background shoots for them for quite a while. So when I proposed to do something with a bit of narrative to it, as along as I shot their clothes they were fine with it. Actually, those pictures turned out quite well – they emboldened me to do another one and another one.
Some of the early stories aren’t much of a story but there is still a story there because something is happening. I remember one where I just wanted to have a white kitten in every picture. Following this girl around the street loosely inspired by this girl from La Dolce Vita. That was a case of making sure there was a white kitten on set and just making sure it was in every picture.
How long does it take now to make an individual image and what’s the size of the team involved?
The team is the same now, it’s a bit like a Rock ’n’ Roll band. Instead of the drummer, the bass player and guitarist, you have the stylist, hair-dresser and make-up artist, the set designer and the prop stylist. It is like a small art movie team – it’s not Hollywood. It’s a group rather than a massive bunch of people. I try to keep control of it, keep costs down. So it doesn’t becoming exorbitantly expensive. As long as my drawings are quite accurate from the beginning, I don’t have to make huge sets, I just make the bit I really need.
Typically I’ll have an idea and I’ll sell the idea to the magazine. Within that six months we’ll shoot it as an idea, over two days mostly – sometimes over one day. Now half the shoots are one day shoots.
Is it mostly sets you shoot in rather than locations?
It goes up and down, I go through different phases, sometimes I like shooting in locations as I find locations give you a lot more options once you are there. They exist in architectural space. If the idea you had thought of doesn’t work, you can probably move the camera and find something else that does work. Whereas a set has no Plan B. You are pretty much figuring out your shot when you are doing a drawing and have the set constructed accordingly. It’s quite nice going into a location like a hotel room and taking it over changing it and putting lights up and really doing a number on it. Changing it through the camera, though the lighting, and propping. I’m quite happy in a studio as a set as well.
When you have a free rein, and it sounds like a lot of the time you have, it can be more difficult to create, as the world’s your oyster. How do you impose your own parameters to get to be where you want to be?
Because I work for Italian Vogue the parameters are not defined but are well understood. You can do a picture of a crazy woman but it does have to be tasteful, it can be contemporary so it can include knowledge of contemporary art but I think it can’t be shocking for its own sake and it can’t trample over certain taboos.
There’s a restriction there and of course you have to show the clothes. And I’m also obliged to make sure that the woman looks really beautiful even if she is weird. There are enough parameters there to make it interesting. I agree though, when artists are given free rein, they often produce rubbish. I like to consider myself working in a similar way to the Hollywood writers and directors in the 1940s and 50s… Celebrating that and everything in between.
When we were talking at your show Short Breaths, about film versus digital, you were saying you do some commercial jobs on digital but mostly you are shooting on film to get the qualities it provides. For shoots for Italian Vogue for instance, would that be film?
Absolutely. All the work in Short Breaths and all the work in Somerset House was previously published in magazines and ninety percent of that was Italian Vogue. For me, the personal work is the magazine work – I consider that my art, in the same that Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton did too. I don’t consider that commercial work even though it’s for a magazine. What I consider commercial work is pure advertising, where it’s a product for a company who want me to show their things. You have to work with someone else’s brief in advertising. Historically, editorial photographers are reporting on the world. They are aware of fashions and the world they live in so the ideas they have and the images they come up with are not just to show the clothes – that would be deadly. The job of the fashion photographer is to subtly make comment on the world he lives in.
Which fashion photographers have influenced you? Whose work do you like the most?
I think as far as being incredibly serious about what he did – and he straddled such a huge period of human culture and commented on it, it would be Richard Avedon. Helmut Newton is also a very interesting and prolific artist who did the same for a more concentrated period in the 70s and 80s. He did in the 60s too but came into his own in the 70s. He was such a pervy, dark guy but I think that vision suited that world of the 70s. Both of these artists are true to their own nature. There is something about Avedon and his obsession with grace and glamour but he was massively aware of the world he was in, the Berlin Wall coming down, the rights of Black people, or the American West project being a shocking report on one of the world’s richest countries.
He was heavily criticised at the time for some of these images. But look how influential they’ve been?
Irving Penn is another one. He is less a fashion photographer than a still life one. In his way, he has an incredible breadth to his work, a huge span of human existence that’s fantastic.
I saw the Platinum Cigarette Butts show at Hamilton’s last year – phenomenal to see them all together…
And again very influential…
Like a lot of great work, if the idea is great you can get the cigarette butt out of the gutter and put it under a camera. He followed it through technically and did it brilliantly, but for me the brilliant bit of that is the idea. He said, walking home from the studio, he would pick up these little bits of detritus and bring them back to the studio the next day to photograph. It’s the idea to do that that’s the amazing thing.
It’s easy to look back at stuff like that and say, well… that’s an old idea but of course, at the time it was breaking new boundaries…
And in its own way it was talking about consumerism.
One more question. Your current body of work has an ‘energy’ and a ‘Miles Aldridge’ look and feel. Is anything hatching in your mind as to how you are going to move it on? Where are you going to go next with your style or approach to image-making?
The exhibition and the book are both incredible full-stops for me – a double full-stop. I feel the new work after this, starting in September, will be different. What I am doing right now is really considering that. I feel the body of work at Somerset House is a really complete representation of how I felt about the world up until now. Now that’s off my chest it leaves room for me to think again and see things in a different way.