A Conversation with Greg Miller
This summer, Project Basho is pleased to offer Faces & Places in Tuscany, led by fine art photographer and Guggenheim Fellow, Greg Miller.
Photographers will visit the hilly countryside of Tuscany where they will stay in the tiny village of Benabbio, a town of about 300 people, and live, eat, and photograph together in the intimate setting of the Villa San Rocco.
Project Basho had the chance to talk with Greg Miller about Italy, photography, and shooting in unfamiliar places.
Project Basho (PB): You photographed extensively in Italy for your series Primo Amore. What first drew you to that country?
Greg Miller (GM): My wife is Italian American and a professor of Italian literature and culture so my love of Italy began by falling in love with her. Her parents are from Calabria, Italy. We began taking regular trips to Italy to visit her extended family before we were married and we have continued semi-regularly since then.
PB: What is it about Italy that lends itself to be photographed so much?
GM: Well, there is the light, the people, the landscape. So many different aspects that make Italy an amazing place to photograph. Another thing is, generally, I am happier when I am there. I am among people that I love, I am eating amazing food and I am surrounded by a modern, fashionable culture that is set against a rich and ancient background.
PB: How do you go about approaching strangers to photograph them? What about people who don’t share your language?
GM: The thing about language is that you don’t have to be a scholar to know enough to make a picture. Early on, since I wasn’t as familiar with the language or social norms it was, in some ways, easier to approach strangers because I wasn’t as self conscious. It is only now that I understand more language and more of the culture that I feel more self conscious. But in the end, whether you are at home or in a foreign land, you will have to kick yourself in the pants to get out and make pictures. That is always the case and we will work on that.
PB: Do you think photographing in unfamiliar places gives you an objectivity that you wouldn’t normally have?
GM: Yes, I think travel always abstracts the culture and the people. There is always the first few days before you get used to being in a place where you are fresh. To take a workshop in this headspace is very powerful because students push themselves to make pictures where they might otherwise be the casual tourist. Chances are, something good will come out of that that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
PB: What do you think about photographing the residents of small villages versus large cities? Do you think they’re more or less receptive to being photographed?
GM: I would say it is much harder to photograph in a small town than in a large city. But only because in a small town I am most certainly an outsider. But they are curious about you. This is true all over the world, that they are suspicious but also curious. You are being looked at as much as you are looking at them! For me, being a photographer has been getting used to being looked at. Of course they are looking at me, I am a spectacle. It’s like the circus coming to town.
PB: How do you describe the nature of your work to your subjects?
GM: Well it’s hard to explain exactly the nature of my work to someone who is coming at it cold and when I am trying to speak a foreign language. But the iPhone (and I also carry an iPad) have helped this process because I can actually show them. But I have found that it is better to focus on the picture I want as opposed to trying to impress them into being photographed by me by showing them old work.
PB: How does shooting large format help you capture the heart of these people and places?
GM: I think it helps because I love shooting with that camera. If you love your camera it shows. You can tell when someone loves shooting with their Leica, or their new Sony digital rangefinder. If I have joy when I make the pictures, there will be joy in the pictures.
PB: Could you tell me about your project for the Guggenheim Foundation?
GM: I am from Nashville originally but moved to New York to go to college straight out of high school. I began working in New York so I stayed, started a family, etc etc. But I had always thought of returning to my hometown to photograph a longterm project. Photographing in my hometown was easily the most intimidating idea I had ever had and it remained only an idea languishing for about 10 years. When I received the Guggenheim in 2008 I decided that this was my opportunity. If a Guggenheim didn’t move me to face my ghosts, nothing would. I drove back to Nashville and allowed my raw emotions to take over and throwing a wide net over the whole city began to make pictures of the contemporary city before me infused with the 1970’s city I knew. It is about coming home again.
To see more of Greg’s work, visit his website.