Just when you thought American Apparel’s Balthusian ads–full of doleful models contorting their bodies in mesh bodysuits and reflective disco shorts–couldn’t get any sillier, along comes photographer Thomas Alleman. In his series, The American Apparel, Alleman documents the clothing line’s ads as he finds them in East Los Angeles, one of the city’s poorer areas. And just like that, the ads start to look downright preposterous.
“My mission is neither to validate nor vilify,” Alleman says of the series. He doesn’t have to. There’s a not-so-subtle absurdity to a model in a wet T-shirt posing above two weary older women, waiting for a city bus, or a girl doing the splits while locals walk by with grocery bags.
American Apparel, of course, didn’t invent the idea that sex sells. Nor did it invent overtly tantalizing billboards. But the company did popularize the pervy “pictures of gawky teenagers made by a cousin or uncle, on the sly, down in the basement with crude equipment,” as Alleman describes them. They’re subversive (or predatory, depending on your point of view)–and that can ruffle feathers. “It’s a well-known American story, whether we’re talking about making a rock band or building kooky inventions or filming Uncle Toby’s homemade porn,” Alleman tells Co.Design. “The results look anarchic.”
Alleman, who has spent years as a street photographer in L.A., says that the American Apparel ads present the opportunity for an intellectual conversation: “One of the essential issues that’s arisen from these pictures–to the folks I meet on the street when I’m working–is the question of ‘allowability’ or ‘permission’ or ‘oversight,'” Alleman says. “People want to know if someone is in charge of the public space.”