Miles of M•A•C: An Ode to Beauty Portraiture

by Jim Cornfield

© Miles Aldridge

Bold “candy” colors, hard-edged shapes and the models’ neutral facial expressions are the creative tools Miles Aldridge uses to showcase M•A•C makeup products in this new title from Rizzoli.

August 14, 2014

British-born photographer Miles Aldridge is a virtuoso at manipulating bold, original graphic devices in his pictures. He’s a storyteller, a weaver of well-crafted cinematic freeze frames—dreamlike, often enigmatic fantasies for fashion or beauty product illustrations, usually in the service of some abstract notion that he alone seems to get but that the rest of us find exciting and sometimes even racy.

If you’re wondering how any of this can possibly be instructive to portrait photographers, have a look at the latest collection of “Aldridgania,” due for release next month and produced in conjunction with the Toronto-based makeup manufacturer, M•A•C Cosmetics. The book, Miles of M•A•C, written by the company’s creative director, James Gager, along with a gaggle of other contributors, is an ode to the pairing of skin with makeup and a feast of inspirational portrait ideas.

If you’re not already familiar with Aldridge, his personal story is worth a glance. The son of noted graphic designer Alan Aldridge, he grew up in a glitzy swirl of British celebrity. John Lennon, Eric Clapton and Elton John were family friends. As a boy, Aldridge and his father sat for a session with royal photographer Lord Snowdon, Queen Elizabeth’s brother-in-law. 

With a glossy pedigree and multiple skills as an illustrator and filmmaker, he was fast-tracked early to shooting covers for British Vogue and then, after emigrating to the U.S., numerous assignments for GQ, The New Yorker, Vogue and The New York Times Magazine. He soon moved on to advertising campaigns for prestigious clients, including Karl Lagerfeld, Armani, Yves Saint Laurent and, of course, M•A•C Cosmetics, perfecting his style of mixing bold candy-colored makeup and hair design with beautiful, totally aloof models. 

At M•A•C, where this became a signature look, Aldridge formed a long creative alliance with Gager, and the latest result of that union is this extraordinary book. Gager is eloquent on the nature of their collaboration:

“Both Miles and I constantly create scenarios in our heads…little visual vignettes, making up stories…I might be sitting in a restaurant, watching people and quietly being aware of what’s going on. What is she saying to him? What is about to happen? Miles is a magical storyteller and often sketches out concepts in his drawing pad before we both sit down to embellish the scenarios—fleshing out the characters and situations until they start to feel real to us. It’s like a form of voyeurism...with each image, we create a world that situates the viewer as participant and invites them [sic] into the fantasy.”

Among Aldridge’s artistic influences—which include the great fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon—is the surrealist movie director David Lynch, who has marveled at Aldridge’s ability to see a “color-coordinated, graphically pure, hard-edged reality.” 

It was controversial performer and concept artist Marilyn Manson who best characterized Aldridge’s work style: “A director at heart [whose] images are anything but portraits of a subject…There is a genius in the very deliberate blankness on the face[s] of the models [that] enables a transference of identity. He always draws you into an arrested fetish that seems as forbidden as a little girl’s diary.”

As a commercial partnering, Miles of M•A•C skirts close to being a shameless advertorial for one of the world’s most respected product lines. Witness, for instance, this gushy quote by iconic singer-songwriter Cyndi Lauper, one of the celebrities who’s added an essay to the book: “I’ve been using M•A•C since 1986. Russian Red is still the greatest colour lipstick! And how can I live without my taupe shading?”

Marketeering aside, Miles of M•A•C is in all other respects a high-voltage, wildly original photo collection. Its 200 chroma-driven images comprise a lustrous swipe file of unconventional, ingenious makeup treatments—some of them a bit over the top, some supremely elegant—each with a different iteration of Aldridge’s well-developed sense of fantasy. His subjects are actors of a sort, and the role is mostly to occupy the sometimes bizarre spaces he carves out for them—on location, in studio sets or created in post-production. Aldridge’s idiosyncratic work style is an excellent template for adding an exotic, playful dimension of make-believe to your relationship with a portrait sitter. 

While Miles of M•A•C beautifully showcases Aldridge’s audacious visuals, the flipside of any artist’s work in the cyberspace age is, in part, our ability to share—to work and play well with others. Says Gager on that subject: “On one level, we hope this book serves as an inspiration for art directors, makeup artists, set designers, hairstylists and anyone with an interest in image-making. On another, we hope it shows what can happen when you combine your creative vision with someone else’s.”

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