Photographer Thomas Alleman‘s work series “American Apparel” is certainly one masterpiece that captures how out of place advertisements can be. In this series, he brilliantly highlights the bizarre incongruity between the ads’ distorted fantasy and the actual reality of the everyday struggle of urban lives. Thomas told us how he came about this project and share with us his reflection on the series.
For fifteen years, American Apparel was a Los Angeles-based clothing manufacturer, specializing in basic knit sportswear for moneyed young hipsters. Just a few years ago, it’s seven-story factory, looming over homeless encampments on the edges of Downtown LA, employed over four thousand textile workers. It’s infamous founder, Dov Charney, created controversial marketing campaigns—featuring young models in strange, sexualized scenes and poses—that won the scorn of cultural critics and the admiration of many cutting-edge designers. But Charney was ousted in 2015, after multiple allegations of sexual harassment, and the company, long identified with his bravado, wobbled and fell into bankruptcy. It was purchased in 2017 by a Canadian apparel company, which rejuvenated the brand and revived, intact, it’s kooky, kinky marketing strategies.
American Apparel has always been proud of its local roots, and has, for many years, perpetrated an only-in-LA campaign of billboards, usually deployed in the working-class neighborhoods where its workforce lived. Those six-by-twelve-foot signs don’t live in a blue, uncluttered sky; they hunker down at eye level, amongst the storefronts and cyclone fences and parking lots, interacting directly with an environment that’s as visually chaotic as those ads are simple and banal and difficult to ignore. Pornstars and amateurs alike are portrayed, in photographs that often appear defiantly crude in technique: young women lounge in provocative, sometimes bizarre poses, looking at the viewer with doleful boredom, imitating the slicker moves of more high-end seduction.
The commodification and sexualization of young women’s bodies is one of the top five worst and weirdest things about our hard-hearted culture. Fashion advertising embraced that ickiness long before American Apparel came on the scene, but their contribution to the trend is notable for its edge and aggressiveness.
That said, my photographs are barely about the marketing campaign itself, which exists on many platforms that I’ve ignored magazine advertisements, Instagram feeds and bus kiosks, for example. More than anything, I hope, my photographs are about Los Angeles itself, and the context it provides for the inspection of those ads on the billboards that proliferate here. For the last twenty years, my special interest has been the social and urban landscape of LA, and the very visible aspects of that built environment.
Unlike other great cities of the world—New York or London or Paris, LA’s growth has been unencumbered by the master plans of powerful city planners or the ravages of war or catastrophe. Many of its neighborhoods have been erected a block at a time by developers and moneyed local interests, and rarely corrected or re-thought. Streets and sidewalks just off at strange angles, owing to the whim of some long-dead landowner or councilman; on a given block, a handful of houses will crowd right up to the sidewalk, looming over pedestrians, while others will stand back fifty yards, digging into the hillside beyond, creating a jungle in their front yard. A cavalcade of diverse crap ensues: pastel stucco, telephone poles, barbed wire, old cars, errant signage, desert foliage and miles of homemade fencing. This visual chaos is, for me, utterly thrilling in its unpredictable diversity.
Into all that, American Apparel has introduced its intimate little billboards. What does it look like when all that ad-hoc, real-world crap wraps itself around the hyper-controlled fantasies of hip sexuality that those advertisements extol? My photographs monitor the “conversation” between LA’s crazy-quilt urban landscape and the glib presentations of corporate “sexiness” that have been planted in its midst.
Thomas Alleman is a commercial, editorial and fine art photographer based in Los Angeles. He began photographing the American Apparel billboards in Los Angeles in 2012 and continued until 2016. The body of work is book-length, including about 55 images. Visit his Instagram profile to see more recently shared images from the series or, check out his other series at his website or Cherrydeck profile, here.