Homage to Sandro Miller
Forty years into his career, photographer and film director Sandro Miller is fearless in his pursuit to capture emotion. From his long history working with John Malkovich to bringing Michael Jordan to tears, Sandro’s work has brought him world renown. Christopher Quyen takes an in-depth journey into the life of the man who is known simply as “Sandro.”
For Chicago-based Sandro Miller, creating images for a living is both an honour and a passion. With a career spanning over forty years, and the greatest names from John Malkovich to Michael Jordan to Muhammad Ali gracing his studio, you would think at one point he had thought of slowing down. But instead, the opposite is true. “After forty years of taking pictures, creating images and creating films, I still have this very deep, longing passion to create something extraordinary and trying to come up with new ideas,” he says. For Sandro, being a creator of images is about trying to always exceed your potential, to “realise what your comfortability level is, and go beyond that.” It is this mentality and work ethic that has kept him a relevant force today in the industry, and he shows no signs of losing his momentum.
Two portraits by Irving Penn
Before the age of 16, Sandro did not think much of photography. Coming from a small Italian migrant family and raised by a single mother, art and culture weren’t considered important in his household. It was only by chance that he happened to pick up a photography magazine that would change his life. “I’m sure there was a scantily clad woman on the cover. I probably picked it up more for that than for photography,” he jokes. But upon opening the magazine, he saw two emotive black-and-white portraits by American photographer, Irving Penn. Sandro had no idea who the people in the photographs were. He had never heard of the great artist, Picasso, and he had never heard of the great novelist, Colette, but the impact those two photographs had on his life was tremendous. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God. This is incredible,’ and then a day later I found out who Picasso was, I found out who Colette was, I found out who Irving was, and a few months later, I went out and bought my first Nikon. That’s where it all started,” he says.
Just study the greats
A formal education in photography always seemed out of reach for young Sandro. “My family couldn’t afford for me to go to a good school,” he says. Even though he learnt the essentials in high school, such as how to load the camera, how to process his own film, and how to make prints, it never offered him the education he desired. So, without a mentor or teacher to guide him, he turned to the only people available to him at the time, the greats. “I started collecting photo books when I was young, and dissecting the images. I just went through page after page and I would look at the mood, at the composition, at the eye of whoever was in the shot to try to see where the light was coming from,” says Sandro. “My education in photography was very much a self-taught process of picking up books and becoming so in love with the images.”
Photography books have played such an integral part in Sandro’s education that he is now surrounded by literally thousands of photo books in his home. Passages by Irving Penn will always be the one that affected him the most as a photographer and influenced his style. “I’ve looked at that book a thousand times and wish I would’ve done even a few of the photographs in there,” he says. While Sandro never assisted for Irving, the two became pen pals after Sandro had to put his dreams of becoming a photographer in New York on hold when he discovered he was going to become a single parent at 23. “I would send him books and prints, and he was very kind to me. I have all his books and they’re all signed. I’m also inspired by Victor Skrebneski and, of course, Richard Avedon, but Irving was my main inspiration. There was nothing that I ever saw of his that didn’t make my knees buckle.”
From products to portraits
Fresh out of high school at 18, Sandro decided that he was going to turn photography into a career. He didn’t know where to start, but he knew he wanted to shoot for the best in Chicago. “So I went downtown and got a job with the number-one photographer in Chicago at the time, David Deal,” he says. Unfortunately for Sandro, who had fallen in love with portrait photography, Deal was a product photographer, and Sandro fell into product photography for the next seven years of his career.
“Eventually, I felt like there was something lost, like my soul was not being fed. I figured out that the thing that was missing was that human touch,” he says. “It was human connection that I needed so badly. I was yearning for the emotion, the touch, the connection. I wanted to capture that single moment in a person’s life that made it so special.” That was when he had the idea to start shooting Chicago blues artists. “I went to all the blues clubs and I built a portfolio of about 30 blues musicians. It was that portfolio that opened the door for me into the advertising agencies to begin shooting people, and from there, I never looked back.”
However, Sandro never regretted his time in product photography. Rather, he brought his attention to detail, his desire for things to be perfect, and all the lighting techniques that he learnt over to portraiture. “Product helped me become the master lighting person that I am today. It’s all about the light and shadow that gives me the mood that I’m looking for,” he says. Product photography also taught him discipline – that if he wanted to be successful he had to work at photography seven days a week. “It’s not about taking pictures though. It’s about immersing in every aspect of photography to continue to learn, whether it’s going to the gallery or listening to a lecture. I’ll still go to seminars to learn more – it’s just a process where you can never stop getting enough information to become a better photographer.”
A defining period
The period 1989–1995 would be the six years that defined Sandro and brought him the recognition that he had been striving for. Sandro commenced his project, American Bikers, in 1989. He documented bikers across the country through intimate and revealing portraits. “Somehow, the editor of New Yorker magazine, Tina Brown, saw my biker images and called me up and asked if she could run a ten-page story of my work.” At the time, Avedon had been the only photographer who had been featured in the magazine prior to that moment.
A shoot with Michael Jordan in 1995, through an advertising agency, was also to have a significant impact on Sandro’s career. “They said to me, ‘We just want beautiful portraits of Michael. No product.’ On the day, [Michael] walks in and says to me, ‘I only have about two minutes here’. I asked him to go somewhere that hurt, and he ended up giving me three and a half minutes. I shot 72 portraits that ended up being in hundreds of magazines and on magazine and book covers.” It was those images that served as his first big break.
Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich
Sandro and the actor John Malkovich have shared something that could be considered an artist and muse relationship. “It was about twenty years ago when he came in for portraits,” Sandro says. “I was doing portraits for all the ensemble members of Steppenwolf Theatre and John needed his portrait taken. I remember creating a series of very emotional black and white shots with John, and that began our working relationship.” However, while most celebrity photographers only have the one opportunity to shoot the stars, Sandro has built a career shooting Malkovich over, and over again. “Maybe it was something in the way that I worked that made him appreciate it, but every time he was in town, he would contact me and ask if we could work together again, and I would do another five to eight portraits of him. Today, I have almost 180 portraits of John.”
And so, began a relationship of mutual respect and caring that made John Malkovich, Sandro’s muse. “I never found anybody more interesting, more intelligent, and more aware of what was going on, on set with the lights and the camera, than John. He would show up every time, this beautiful white canvas, and allow me to paint on him. He never said no to any of my ideas.” But it was their relationship that paved the way for Sandro to create Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters – a body of recreations of great photos by master photographers after he was diagnosed with stage four throat cancer five years ago. “I was lying in bed one day and I started thinking to myself how I was influenced by these great masters and how they truly helped me to achieve my goal of who I wanted to be as a photographer,” he says. “I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if someday I could thank them. So I came up with these idea of paying homage to them with the help of Malkovich.”
Sandro’s recreations achieved online viral success and he has since been commissioned to make recreations for David Lynch paying homage to iconic scenes from his films, and New York magazine to make recreations of Jessica Lane paying homage to iconic images of woman. “It is funny, how something that came out of almost a way to heal from a cancer has now moved into part of my life and as part of supporting my livelihood. This is probably what I’ll go down in history for… the Malkovich work.”
The Sandro Touch
But what gives an image the Sandro touch? “It is the execution of perfection, and keeping it simple. The image also has to have an idea, and a strong emotion coming from it,” he says. It is these elements that Sandro continues to strive towards and push the envelope in the journey to create great images. “I don’t think it’s easy anymore to create great images, because we’re so bombarded with imagery online that you almost have to do something shocking to get people’s attention,” he says. “Irving Penn once said, ‘The greatest photographers maybe in their lifetime will create ten iconic images.’ Ten masterpieces.”
Emotion is also the key to all of Sandro’s images, and a lot of it is communicated in the way he works with his subjects. “Never has there been a shoot where I don’t touch my sitter. We always end with a hug or there is a hand on them when I’m talking to them,” he says. “There’s an energy that is transferred from me to that person that allows that person to become very comfortable and vulnerable because they can feel that I really care about them.” Sandro’s tremendous care and love for his subjects can be found in a portrait he took of Michael Jordan. “I once asked Michael to go someplace that really hurt, so he dipped his head down, then he gave me the slightest look that showed me the emotion he felt about his father who had recently passed away. A tear rolled down his face, and I took my shot.”
Sandro goes as far as to even call emotion the secret to all his work. “When you connect with someone, they become very comfortable and they share little secrets about themselves through their eyes, their mouth, their heart and soul, and hands. It is those secrets that makes a viewer of my work want to know what is going on with the person I photographed.”
Personal and pro bono work
“I tell everybody that if you don’t do personal work, your career is going to be very short-lived,” Sandro says. For him, personal work is what photographers need to do to look after their souls. “If you’re just doing advertising work, you’re going to be soulless…you’ll have a lot of money in the bank, but [be] soulless. You’ll be doing work that other people created – you’re just executing the idea.” With personal work, you are the sole creator of that image. Sandro attributes his personal work, taking portraits of hands or his work in Cuba and Papua New Guinea, to his long career in the industry. “When people go into my portfolio, they don’t see someone ready to eat a McDonald’s cheeseburger, they’re seeing great work that I’ve done in Cuba or with the bikers. It’s so important for me to be going out and photographing work for myself. It’s also these works that I’ve also branded myself on,” he says. Sandro does stress, however, never to leave your paid work for personal work, and that it’s about balance. “Advertising has helped me to do the personal work that I want to pursue. It’s helped me travel to 72 countries just to shoot. You can’t do one without the other.”
Pro bono work is another major priority for Sandro who has shot dancers for Dance for Life, an AIDS fundraiser in Chicago, and portraits for the American Cancer Society. “Pro bono work is what I do for charities. A photograph can change the thought of a person to give so much more to charity. So many charities can’t afford great photographers,” he says. Why he does this comes down to what he believes is our responsibility as photographers – to bring light to issues. “I always tell people that photography is the big teacher. Without photography we wouldn’t know what famine looks like or what an AIDS epidemic looks like. It’s photography where we learn 90% of what we know and be able to empathise and understand, maybe, what these situations are like,” he says. Pro bono work has taught Sandro much about life – as he is giving back, he is also receiving so much from his subjects. “I think we should all get involved in a cause and use our talents to bring awareness to that cause.”
Moving to film
After being approached by Nikon approximately 10 years ago to direct a campaign for them showcasing a new DSLR that was capable of shooting video, Sandro has been an active talent in the film industry. “At first I believed that because I had 30 years of experience as a still photographer I’d be fine,” he says. However, he found the opposite was true. “With photography, you have to study one single image to see if there is anything wrong with it. With motion, since it’s moving so fast, you have to instead see if the whole sequence is perfect.”
In 2011, at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, Sandro received a Saatchi & Saatchi Best New Director Award for his short video, Butterflies, featuring John Malkovich. And recently, his short film, Hell was named the grand-prize winner of the International Motion Art Awards at the annual AI-AP Big Talk event in New York, which also starred John Malkovich. “Today, you can’t just be a stills photographer. If you want to succeed and stay in this business, you have to do motion, or else you’ll lose jobs that will ask you to do both on campaigns,” he says.
The gear and talent behind Sandro
A Nikon Ambassador, Sandro has been shooting on Nikon from the very start of his career and tends to use it for journalistic work or sports. “I think I’ve probably shot with every Nikon camera ever made,” he says. “It’s a gift being an ambassador because they send you every camera they’ve ever made.” Using Nikon, his favourite lens is an 85mm f/1.4. When it comes to portrait work, however, Sandro relies on his Hasselblad. “With my Hasselblad, I like to keep it simple when I’m shooting portraits with either my 60mm or my 80mm lens,” he says.
But despite the gear, it is the team behind Sandro that makes everything possible. He has been working with a producer, Zack Sabin, who has been taking care of every little detail for Sandro’s shoots for seven years, and a manager, Allen Martin, who has been by Sandro’s side for 15 years. At the core of it though, is his wife Claude-Aline Nazaire, who works with Sandro. “She is the heart and soul behind my work. She’s been there for me at every single moment.” For Sandro, having a team has made the creative process a lot easier. “It’s a shame though because a lot of young photographers don’t have teams. They have to do everything themselves, and that makes it difficult to be creative.”
With forty years of experience in the industry, what’s next for Sandro? Currently, it is going back to Papua New Guinea to finish off his personal portrait project on tribes. But in the long run, his mission is one for the people. “I want to use my photography to produce images that help people and better their lives and their situations,” he says.
If Sandro can create an image that can help a foundation, a charity, a cause, or change the world and people’s minds of what they think about certain things that are going on in the world, then he is going to do just that. “My camera has been this ticket that has allowed me into the hearts of so many different people. It’s been 40 years of meeting so many wonderful people, and as crazy as this world is, I still believe that people
Limited edition prints of Sandro’s work are available through Catherine Edelman Gallery.