ALAN COHEN: When did you become interested in photography?
SANDRO MILLER: I was about 16 or 17 years old - it was, perhaps, 1976. I had gone to a drug store and picked up a couple of photo magazines. At home, I came across a couple of images by Irving Penn and Richard Avedon when both of those guys were well into their careers. And the imagery that I saw of these two photographers moved me, amazed me. I think it was, at that time, that I wanted to see if there was a way for me to work creatively. So, thinking that the camera was probably the best way to express myself, I picked up my first camera, a Nikon F, and started going.
Did you start by making portraits like Avedon and like Penn?
MILLER: Well, don't I wish! [LAUGHTER] No. The process has been long. I actually started out working in a very small studio shooting product. While there I learned a little bit about lighting, and a little bit about equipment. Then I took a one-semester course at a junior college where I learned a little bit about the darkroom. Then I decided that I wanted to search out photography as a profession. I found a photographer in my hometown who was doing some commercial work. And I went to him and asked him for a job. I received the job and began to learn more about lighting, more about equipment, and what the commercial world was really about. I lasted there for about three years, and then I sought out a couple of the most influential photographers in Chicago and started working with them.
So you worked hard, learned and then knocked on new doors?
MILLER: Life, then, was about going to work, being on the set, and working with the great shooters we have in this city here. The other part of my education came from books. I began collecting photography books, at a very, very young age. And that's where I really found my inspiration, my influences and the people that really moved me. I studied those photographs and I tried to get into the photographer's mind to know what he was thinking about when shooting the images that they shot. I would imagine myself in that situation; imagine where the sun was, where the light was coming from. I would ask myself if it was window light or light from the sun or from a strobe?
I would dissect every single photograph that I looked at so that I could figure out how they did it. Each time that I did this I filed a little more information into my head. I put myself in that situation. I thought about the lens that they would use, what aperture they were at to see how much of the depth of field was actually used. It was really my way of teaching myself the craft that I today own.
How did the camera affect what you were doing?
MILLER: Because the Nikon F was a totally manual camera, I really had to know what the camera could do - what every shutter speed could perform - and what it would give me. Using that old F camera really taught me a lot about how to shoot. I mean, of course I started out with a 50mm but then I experimented with the wide-angle lenses. I have always loved perspective so shooting with the wide-angle lenses has always been something that's been really dear to me.
Where did your best career advice come from?
MILLER: It was probably 1979 or 1980 when a photographer asked: "What did I think I was doing, getting into photography? Did I have any idea what I was in for? [LAUGHTER] Why don't I just save myself a lot of time right now and don't bother." Well, at the time, I took his advice as a challenge to follow my dream and to follow my heart. So I said, "I am gonna do this" because I loved what I was doing. I love getting up every single day to do what I am doing
What do you tell the people that now come to you for guidance? Would you say, "Be a photographer"? or would you say, "Oh, no, this is too hard"?
MILLER: My studio is a revolving door of young photographers coming to have me talk to them about how I became successful or seeking help or a portfolio review. When asked, I always say my career came from the heart, from a passion, the love of shooting, and the love of photography. There is nothing else I would rather be doing in the whole world than taking pictures. So my advice to the young is to really follow their dreams and follow their hearts. It is possible. Anything is possible, if they want to do it. It is a lot of hard work. There is a lot of sacrifice to become a very successful photographer. Every day I think about the wonderful people I have met and the challenges that I have addressed. My life is filled with joy. I am very pleased that I continued on so the advice I want to give to the young is this: it's there, success and satisfaction is available to them.
How does one become successful? What are the qualities that define success? Has memory - remembering people you deal with or work you've done - played a role in your career?
MILLER: Memory plays a huge role in my business. I have been shooting now for close to 28 years and I always fall back on successful shoots that I have had - and also shoots that were not successful for me. Not every shoot a photographer has is a successful shoot so you rely on your memory, to go back to ask yourself "What made that shoot a success? What can I repeat to make this shoot even more successful than another shoot that I did?"
Client loyalty is a key to business success. I have heard clients describe you as attentive, gracious and charming. How do you think about the client?
MILLER: My actual shooting time now - as the business has grown - occupies only 20 percent of my efforts. But I am working always very hard on self-promotion by just making the calls, and connecting with people, and asking them how they are doing. And staying connected by staying in their minds. I try to spend a little time with them so that means that perhaps we get together for a little bite to eat, some tea, some coffee, a beer. I get out there with them and become a friend because this is a business built on relationships. You have to have people believe in you as a human being and not only believe in your work. I find that nurturing relationships in our business is very, very, very important.
What about your belief in your own vision as an artist and your strength as a problem-solver?
MILLER: Well, I think today that I have got the confidence to believe that I could take on anything that's thrown my way knowing that people are depending on me to help them shine. And I am up for the challenge. For 20 years, I have been shooting very beautiful, thick, gritty, rich, gutsy black-and-white headshots. And that's what I am known for. Today, I am doing a lot of the "big picture" type of advertising - the skydivers-falling-out-of-an-airplane type of shot. I want to be able to really expand my vision to create different types of beautiful images. My work can evolve because I have confidence in myself and feel ready for the next challenge.
How much has luck - just good luck - played in your career?
MILLER: Luck has been a major part of my career. In the
early '90s, I was asked by a small agency to travel to do a portrait of
Michael Jordan for a TV spot here in town. They warned me: "We don't know
how much time you are gonna have with Michael." Well, I went to the site
and set up for about seven hours never knowing for sure whether I was gonna
get Michael or not. Very late in the afternoon, when they had a couple of
minutes, Michael came to me. He said, "I have a couple of minutes here."
We sat Michael down. And we hit him with a quick hit of makeup. Put him
into a black turtleneck and, in three and a half minutes, I shot probably
the most recognized portraits of Michael Jordan today. I shot 72 portraits.
We hit every emotion that Michael could put out. It was amazing. Those shots
ended up selling hundreds and hundreds of times as covers of magazines and
for big campaign ads. Those three and a half minutes became the most influential
shoot and the most important moments of my career. My life was changed by
preparation - and by luck. Getting that chance to be able to shoot Michael
- with no product in his hand at the time and then having Michael become
the star that he became - was luck. I'd say luck played a pretty big part
in my career.
How do you decide how intimate a picture should be? Where is the line for your vision?
MILLER: The evening or the morning before a subject comes to the studio, I think that I have the idea about the picture and just how close I want to get to them. But that changes when that subject gets in front of you and you start interacting with that person. There is an energy that goes on between the two of us. Something that either says, you know, "Get closer to me" or "It's OK for you to come in here." The subject will let you know with energy that they are giving off that they are willing to go where you may want to go with them. That's decided intuitively while the shoot is happening.
You set aside time - in the case of Michael Jordan it was seven hours - without any assurance that you would ever have him in front of your camera. How much time do you put into these assignments that you have? How do you determine when enough preparation is enough? How do you know? How do you plan?
MILLER: I very much believe in doing my homework. When
you are working on a big advertising campaign, and a client is spending
the kind of money that they are spending, they are putting their campaign
in your hands. They are placing their trust in you. Sometimes, for a one-day
shoot in Los Angeles with a basketball player on a very urban court, wearing,
say, Adidas clothing, I may spend a couple of weeks in production. There
is a tremendous amount of preparation: hiring the right crew to work with
you; having the right equipment - the correct lighting system for that day,
the right films, camera and the appropriate lenses. And this must be worked
out prior to having 20 or 30 people on a set watching you on the day of
a shoot. So the homework is very, very important to your success. And being
prepared means having tested your film, your lighting and your filtrations
for location. You must be sure that everything on the day of the shoot runs
like clockwork. You are a pro and you want to look like and operate like
a pro. The client is, after all, paying you pro prices. There is no room
No margin at all?
MILLER: No margin, none, no mistakes. You are only as good as your last shot.
Another pro might say: "I have already done it, learned it,
know it." But you are saying that you are constantly changing and are constantly
upgrading and constantly learning.
MILLER: I am learning every day. Learning every day from the masters of the 1930s, the '40s and the '50s: André Kertész, August Sander, and, always, Irving Penn. Every time I turn a page of a Penn book, I am moved. I am studying both Helmut Newton's work because I am doing a lot more fashion work and also the work of photographer David LaChapelle who, to me, is one of today's most innovative, groundbreaking photographers. And I am constantly studying European magazines - Italian Vogue, French Vogue. The Europeans are really producing the work today that is very much on the edge.
Do you recall what you were thinking about before your business and you were financially secure? What did you think about when you knew that so much was at risk and that you might not make it?
MILLER: So you are asking me to go back to those days when I got about 50 calls a day asking me for "pay this bill"? [LAUGHTER] "You owe me." [LAUGHTER] That was not that long ago. This is a business that needs a financial backer but unfortunately, we usually don't get that. It always seems to be a fight. We are artists, not financial wizards. But business requires a huge learning curve and I struggled until I got a great studio manager; somebody who really helped me out managing my money situation and fighting off those calls; getting people paid and getting us back on track. It took 10 to 12 years to get to a point where people believed in me and I could get huge campaigns.
Could you discuss the progression of your studio's growth and its growth as a business?
MILLER: When I began, I had a rep who went out and sold jobs for us. At the time, we were a partnership. And we had three employees. So there were a total of five of us. When I stopped assisting, I walked into some big catalogue accounts that kept me quite busy. But I then left that operation to work on my own. Next came a studio manager and, later, an assistant so there were three of us. I have been up to as many as seven employees before 9/11. Our crew was big and the overhead was big and there was a lot of pressure to generate work to generate cash flow. Today I am running with a four-man crew: an in-house producer, a studio manager, an assistant, and a darkroom technician whenever I need him. I like the crew at this size. Now I am able to pick and choose my work a little more carefully. And it really does help my creativity.
How did the Cuban pictures happen?
MILLER: I was over in Cuba shooting boxers for a book that I was working on. I spent close to three months there. On the first two trips I photographed boxers but, on the third trip, I was given the challenge of shooting all the national sports heroes, past and present. In the end, I made close to 100 portraits of some very, very important athletes. In Cuba, I was working with a producer who, in addition to the boxers, got me permission to photograph in the School of the National Ballet of Cuba. While The National Ballet de Cuba is one of the world's most revered dance companies, their space is very, very raw. Because the building is so rundown, the practice room floor is wet on a rainy day. Yet that place and program is producing some of the best dancers in the world.
On one occasion, I was photographing a boxer at some distance from the window in his training complex because the highlights hitting his arms and his face gave the look that I was looking for. But then I stuck a yellow filter over the lens. Though I was playing again and having fun, I loved the yellow cast on the highlights and these amazing results ended up in my portfolio. Though I normally wouldn't stick a yellow filter in front of my lens to shoot a portrait, there it felt right and the results were wonderful. And that's why I urge young photographers to always try something different. I encourage them not to be afraid of play. We are in this to have fun, and to create.
So you are saying, "Know what the rules are, so that you know what you are breaking."
MILLER: Know what you are breaking. And break the rules and get out of the box. Nathan Gluck is an example of that. I was sent to New York City to photograph a man who was part of the Warhol factory. At the time I met him, Gluck was, I would guess, in his early seventies. We met at his 400 square foot apartment whose walls were totally covered with beautiful paintings by Marisol, Chagall, Lichtenstein, Warhol and everyone that you could think of. I learned that day that Nathan was one of the gentlest, most beautiful men in the world. So I not only enjoyed the company of one of the art world's most iconic men but I was able to get a great photograph that day. Nathan was physically amazing - there was the grit of his hands and his fingernails but his eyebrows were the main focus for me. And that was something that I really wanted to pick up. So I used lighting that would really accentuate the grit coming from his face, from his nose, and his fingernails and then printed it with yet more high contrast. That photograph became an iconic portrait of mine.
Can you talk about the series of nudes on Plexiglas?
MILLER: I was hired by a designer to photograph the executives of Florsheim Shoes. They came to me and said, "We are really looking to do something different - something that hasn't been done before." The thought came to me that though we have the executives of Florsheim, why don't we show the shoe as the hero?" So I talked them into building a huge Plexiglas box - a platform really - strong enough to hold the CEO, the CFO and all of the high executives of their team on top. I would photograph them from below. The viewer would see the bottom of their shoes - their Florsheim shoes - before you would actually see them. It was a great perspective and it went over really, really big. But at the end of the day, I thought to myself, "There has got to be something more that I can do with this Plexiglas." So, I decided to shoot nudes from under the Plexiglas platform. The first photographs began where the Florsheim portraits ended with the subject standing on the glass. Soon, however, the models began to lie down on the glass and as I would come in tighter, the bodies would become abstract landscapes - like a desert viewed from an airplane. And the project progressed. Next, I photographed dancers on the Plexiglas. You start somewhere with a project, and it evolves, and you move on, and you do something different and more powerful. And you grow with it.