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Review of Miles Aldridge: I Only Want You to Love Me at Somerset House, London

A host of female characters inhabits a long hall of a space in this major retrospective of photographer Miles Aldridge’s work. In this assembly of stereotypes, actress-models inhabit and reinterpret the familiar costumes and stances of the film noir femme fatale; the medieval icon, eyes brimming with ecstatic virginity and pearly tears; the desperate housewife beset with near comedic anxiety; and the helpless overindulger, guilty at the expense she incurs and the food she consumes (a red raw steak tartare in A Precious Glam #2 (2011), an enormous coke and bucket of popcorn in 3-D (2010)). I Only Want You to Love Me is a picture of excess  conveyed as flawed but ultimately addictive: Aldridge lights and frames his visions of excess with a love of acid tones and symmetry that encourages the viewer to indulge in concert with his subjects.

Everything the feminist fights – essentialism, prescriptivism, conformity to mediated norms – is contained and re-presented by Aldridge in an act of institutional critique. The world of film is considered as much as that of fashion: a wall text punctuating a particularly cinematic selection of shots quotes the photographer: “To me, the great moments in Hollywood are close-ups of a woman’s face, thinking, and she’s just realised that her whole world is wrong”. Such close-ups abound, with only the eyes betraying unease because hair, skin and clothing have been rendered flawlessly incapable of expression. More troubling than the close-ups, however, is the faceless Minuit #2 (2007), closely cropped around a male hand gripping high at female thigh. Preceded by a second cinema quote, in which Aldridge confesses his love of Blue Velvet , it is easy to project Minuit #2 into one’s memory of Rossellini and Hopper playing out violent sex scenes.

Further disquiet is found in depictions of troubled motherhood: a glamorous mum has neglected to clothe her baby, a Victoria Beckham lookalike is encircled by a dozen footballing boys, and a woman dressed in pastel pink daydreams vacantly as a primary school age daughter attends to her hair. Things get personal here as Aldridge recalls his ‘mum’s lot was not much. My parents had an unpleasant divorce, and she was left with the kids (…) my understanding of wounded women, I think, began with my mother’.

After this confession, a sense of which recurs in the religious icon imagery presented erotically altar-like at the conclusion of the show, a series of drawings and Polaroids presented in vitrines feel like light relief. They offer insight into Aldridge’s biography and working methods: the photographer initially studied illustration and drawing remains a starting point prior to shoots. The Polaroids show the decisiveness of Aldridge’s vision: he prefers film to digital media so the instant snaps serve as tests from which final images scarcely diverge.

In its final weeks, I Only Want You to Love Me will become a behind the scenes backdrop to the hoardings, marquees and catwalks erected for London Fashion Week SS14. The steady flow of posers, competing for attention as they pass through the Strand entrance to Somerset House, may miss the commentary passed by Aldridge on the world they inhabit. The veteran fashion photographer appears to issue a warning that a wealth of emotional fragility lies beneath surface layers of painstakingly selected garments, confident struts and heads held high. But of course, fashion does an excellent job of quelling insecurities. We forge ahead and openly embrace the paradox.

Elizabeth Homersham

I Only Want You to Love Me coincides with the publication of the book by the same name, published by Rizzo

Miles Aldridge: I Only Want You to Love Me, 10 July until 29 September, Somerset House,South Building Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 1LA. www.somersethouse.org.uk

Credits:

1. A Drop of Red #2 © Miles Aldridge 2001. Courtesy Somerset House
2. The Pure Wonder © Miles Aldridge 2005. Courtesy Somerset House
3. Tan Lines #4 © Miles Aldridge 2012. Courtesy Somerset House

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