Interview with Greg Miller
Greg Miller’s celebrated portraits capture the beauty and pathos of human relationships and everyday life. He talked with us about his practice, which centers around photographing people (often strangers) with an 8×10 camera. Read on to get Greg’s insight about interacting with unfamiliar people, the mysterious synergy behind successful portraiture, the agony of editing, reconciling personal and commercial work, and the story behind his current project.
- How did you get over the fear of approaching strangers to photograph and how do you get them to relax in front of the camera?
I have always had a strong desire to photograph people and the street was an constantly renewable source. As a photographer early on, naturally, I ended up doing a lot of street photography. I quickly realized that while I was satisfying my desire to photograph people, I was met, whenever I went out, by tremendous anxiety around talking to people. And even if I didn’t talk to them I still had anxiety about violating their privacy and them becoming upset or violent, even if we never spoke.
So after years of photographing people on the street without talking to them and kind of living with that relative discomfort, I decided to pick up an 8×10 camera and try using that on the street instead of a smaller camera. The larger camera forced me to talk to people for two reasons: First, since the camera was so big, I couldn’t make a picture of a person without them knowing it. Second, the camera is so cumbersome that I couldn’t move with the person either. It required me to tell the person what I wanted from them, where to stand, etc.
Suddenly I was talking to everyone. And what I discovered when I talked to everyone was that people are much more receptive (most of the time) than I ever thought they could be. Especially if I am not photographing them without talking to them. Now when I go out on the street I still experience fear and anxiety but I know that that, in essence, is simply me experiencing the world and not an indication of my relative safety. It is merely a gauge of how much I am attracted to that person. Fear and love are both levels of attraction. With this, I use my fear as a compass.
- What made you come up with your current project ‘The Bus Stop Between Two Worlds’?
When my wife, daughter and I first moved to Connecticut from New York I first saw sleepy children and teenagers standing in their driveways waiting for the morning school bus in the early predawn hours. I thought how beautiful that was and what a great project that would make but how would I do it? Several years passed of not doing it until the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary happened. My daughter was then about the same age as many of the victims, the school was the same layout as my daughters, it was an hour away. It affected me and I was reminded once again of the lonely figures by the side of the road. So I decided to start photographing our closest friends kids at in their driveways waiting for the bus. I basically made appointments with them. But even still, I sometimes had to go back a couple of days to get it right since when they get on the bus, they are gone.
- How do you manage to edit down your photos for a project?
This can be a very emotional experience of letting go of pictures that I like, I liked the experience but the picture is not quite conveying anything to a viewer. I have to let go of them and that is often hard. I usually hang these pictures in my darkroom. That is my little “gallery of experiences.” In the end it is better to be ruthless than to show more
- You work in both the commercial and fine art world, how do you approach each differently when photographing?
My personal work is my own and I work towards making it as raw and wild as I can make it. A long time ago, I made the decision to show only personal work to get commercial work. Therefore I have only one photography. I didn’t want to shoot two different things such as still life or weddings. I do what I do and I am lucky that what I do is somewhat commercially appealing. So I show my personal work and photo editors, art directors, creative directors are inspired and call me for work that is good. I think above all photo editors and creative directors want you to tell them what you are best at. The more I put my absolute best work in my book, published or not, that is what I am telling them.
- What makes a good portrait to you?
A good portrait is an amazing synergy between the subject and the photographer with the photographer not present (most of the time) in the picture. It is a portrait of the subject, after all. But how you photograph a person, the lighting, frame, distance, their response to you, the sum total of all of that is your subject plus you… or TIMES you. That is what I mean by the invisible relationship because we will receive the photographer in relief. The more the photographer brings to that relationship and the more confident he or she is, the better the portrait will be. The photographer must be in command but he or she must also be prepared to surrender to what the subject is bringing to the session. You must not be a dictator.
- What are you hoping that students will learn from your Portraiture: The Invisible Relationship workshop?
I am hoping that they get a better sense of what they are bringing to their portraiture and, as a result, a greater confidence dealing with subjects one on one.