Beyond Beauty

Beyond Beauty

A model lies on the floor in a pink suit. Her expression is vacant and lifeless as she directs a distant gaze towards the viewer. Above her head is a vintage telephone just a few shades darker than the orange carpet. It comes into focus and speaks to the only text in the lower third, the greeting: “hello.” What has happened? Who is on the phone? It’s a scene with more questions than answers. Hello (2020) is the work of famed British fashion photographer Miles Aldridge (b. 1964). Beginning his career in the 1990s, the lens-based artist has received international acclaim for highly stylised images. Like Hello (2020), he is known for matching striking visuals with quotes from art history, daily life, film and pop culture. The sense of artificiality that underpins these images comes from the rich palette of bold and shimmering hues. As one of the few contemporary photographers still shooting on film, there’s a cinematic quality embedded into his work. They’re like movie’s forever paused. We’re left to ask: What happened before? What comes next?

Now, Aldrige comes to Berlin with the show Virgin Mary. Supermarkets. Popcorn. The title relates to the three core sources of inspiration behind his work: the dramatic dress, lighting and staging of Caravaggio (1571-1610) in paintings like Death of the Virgin (1606); the consumer society we live in, where products promise happiness; and the continued impact of cinema in Aldridge’s work, from filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) and Federico Fellini (1920-1993). Fotografiska Berlin becomes the setting for this in-depth survey of the artist’s must-sees, from the portraits of performance artist Marina Abramović (b. 1946) and fashion designer Donatella Versace (b. 1955) to his iconic Immaculée series on display.

Despite the glamour, Aldridge hints at the pressing societal fears and problems that hide beneath the gleaming surface. His work focuses on our “illusion of control in our consumer and social media-oriented lifestyle.” He continues: “when life comes at us fast and surprises us with things like disease, social injustice, civil unrest and pandemics, we are incredibly vulnerable and defenceless.” The artist highlights these realities through symbolic details and dark humour. In one shot, titled 3-D, Aldridge presents the subject seated in a cinema wearing 3D glasses that are tinted pink and green on separate lenses. She appears intently focused on a screen we do not see, watching with her mouth open to fit the straw from her coca cola. In a twist of irony against the name of the piece, her drink and popcorn are merely 2D props with no depth or sustenance. It’s an undeniably glamorous shot – as the model sports meticulously styled hair and bold pink lipstick – that also raises questions about attention, consumerism and distraction.

Fashion photography is an opportunity to raise important issues in a space we might not expect to see it. The genre undeniably has a reputation for sleek editorials, photoshopped perfection and narrow beauty standards. Nevertheless, many artists have pushed it further by using it as a form of expression with the power to spark key conversations – all through beautiful visuals. In recent years, image-makers like Nadine Ijewere (b. 1992), Tyler Mitchell (b. 1995) and Viviane Sassen (b. 1972) have brought fresh perspectives to the style of photography, proving that it is far from superficial. Some are redefining who is beautiful, whilst others use glamour to broach pressing topics. Who knows what awaits the future of fashion photography?

Fotografiska Berlin, Miles Aldridge: Virgin Mary. Supermarkets. Popcorn | Until 5 May

Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh

Image Credits:

  1. Immaculée #2, 2007 © Miles Aldridge
  2. Mystique #1, 2018 © Miles Aldridge
  3. Marina Abramović, 2010 © Miles Aldridge
  4. The Student #1, 2015 © Miles Aldridge
  5. 3-D, 2010 © Miles Aldridge