By and large, Miles Aldridge is a fashion photographer. Born and raised in the world of fashion (his father was a designer, he has two fashion model daughters), it is no wonder that Aldridge’s work is characterised by strong colours and elaborate set-ups. Women are the subject – or rather object – of all of his work. Whether they are glossy madonnas or tacky fashion divas or victims of household items, they are in each and every photo exhibited in his current exhibition I only want you to love me in Somerset House, London. Fittingly, as I visited the exhibition on Monday, London Fashion Week was in full swing in Somerset House, too, and the images created by Aldridge stood alongside the peacocky narcissism of the bold, the blingy and the beautiful. Fox pelts stapled to the shoulder of fashion victims – you would think that is a figment of a photographer’s imagination, but no, seen on the cobbles of the Somerset House courtyard on a passing fashion enthusiast. The mind boggles. What the – fashion-challenged – photographer cannot understand in real life becomes a statement of irony and deliberate exaggeration in the photographic art of Aldridge: hyper-made up, glamourous women in shrill colours, plastic-y skin and garish accessories. Woman as a victim of fashion?
Aldridge works on film – Kodachrome and Ektachrome – and deliberately so, in order to manipulate his images in post-processing and arrive at a “brutal simplification of the images”. Primary colours scream from the prints. It is hard *not* to be drawn (by the signal colours) to the photographs, and as soon as you set your gaze on the image, you are drawn into the stories: a seductively open mouth with a pink-clawed index finger offering a smattering of caviar to the gaping chasm. The domestic goddess in defeat, tray of smashed dinner plate in front of her. Stepford Wives, identical and exchangable, shopping in the supermarket. It is so overdone that it is simply fun to look at, to enjoy the colour, the superficial, polished beauty of it all. But the elaborate set-ups contain whole stories, as superficial as they may seem upon first sight. They make you think, continue the story in your own mind, prompt your imagination: For whose benefit is the caviar seductress suggestively licking her finger? Why has the yellow housewife smashed her chicken and peas, and for whom are the Stepford Wives buying shopping-trolley loads of Heinz beans???
Yes, we can put a suitably sociocritical superstructure on the message of the images. The searing wounds of oppression by fashion, body image and advertising, inflicted upon the 20th century woman. The dichotomy of domestic goddess and sultry seductress that all women have to live. The pastiche of the Madonna, crying empty tears for the loss of autonomy. They are all victims, wounded women. Oh how ironic Aldridge puts it all. I find his way of addressing the problems of female alienation too simplistic, possibly too lurid, even though that’s what we might *like* to see when looking at oversimplified imagery like this. There are a few quotes by Aldridge throughout the exhibition, and frankly, I wish they hadn’t been there. Such as this one: “My understanding of wounded women, I think, began with my mother.” Does he really understand? Or is his irony perpetuating the on-going wounding of women?
Don’t get me wrong. I did not look at this exhibition expecting to see a documentary on the state of women’s lib in the 21st century. I quite simply enjoyed the wonderfully oversaturated colours, the lurid scenes, the Barbie-doll artificiality of his subjects. I felt blissfully removed from these fantasy creatures. Nothing in my life can even remotely relate to the scenes depicted. And I thought to myself, “can we please just see this as pop-art fun?”. Yeah, I *am* interested in the issue of gender equality, but that does not mean I cannot savour simple aesthetics or over-emphasised irony. Therefore I almost enjoyed the most sexist of Aldridge’s work the most – his fashion editorial for luxury watches was simply splendid – implicitly explicit scenes of male domination where all that is visible is a male wrist (always with the clunky precious-metal watches on view) on the thigh of a be-suspendered woman, pubic mound lurking behind the lacy thong; the male thumb invading the seductively opened mouth (again); the male hand splayed across the woman’s cheek. Oh yes, woman in chains of oppression and sexual submission. In the name of advertising. That is actually more (worth) telling than the implied imbalance between the genders.
What you make of it depends on your own personal taste. If you need the cloak of an artist’s statement that assures you “oh no, this is all meant ironically”, then there it is. If you are happy enough to look at highly aestheticised images with a twisted sense of humour, and you can take sexism without putting on your purple dungarees and employing your bra like a catapult, this exhibition will make you smile and allow your eyes to feast. If, however, you have a feminist agenda, don’t go. It’ll get your back up and your knickers in a definite twist. Lacy-see-through or not.
Miles Aldridge – I only want you to love me
Until September 29, 2013