I recently came across the work of Miller Mobley on Twitter on a random chance of browsing through a few recent tweets. I was linked directly to his blogwhich had a post about his recent shoot with Quentin Tarantino and Jamie Foxx. What I loved, more than his impeccable results, was how he was quite giving in regards to the details of the shoot.
He went over his lighting setup as well as a backstory on how it all happened. I felt like I was there with him.
I took a look through his portfolio and read a little about him. At just 26 years of age, his work has already been featured on the cover of Time magazine, he's worked with countless celebrities and major advertising clients, and he's represented by Redux Reps. I decided that it would be great to talk with Miller to ask him about his career and how he got to where he is in such a short period of time. He's obviously had some great progress along the way and possibly some tips we can all learn from.
Miller, thank you for taking the time to talk to us! We'd love to hear a little more about your background in photography and how you got started in the field.
I'm from a relatively small town in Alabama. I can remember when I was around 15, thinking that I wanted to make a living being a cinematographer in Hollywood. Throughout high school I would make films with my friends and siblings. I was not the best student when it came to academics, so I was never accepted into the schools that I thought could teach me how to become a professional cinematographer. I decided that I would just go to school in my hometown's backyard, The University of Alabama. Once enrolled, I realized that the closest discipline to cinematography offered at Alabama was photography. So, I decided that studying photography would be good for me. As time went on, I became obsessed with photography to a point where it was the only thing I could think about - cinematography had totally exited my mind. One of my teachers introduced me to the work of Richard Avedon, by loaning me one of his books. I'll never forget looking at that book and realizing the power of portraits. I knew from that point on that I did not just want to be a photographer, but I wanted to be a portrait photographer. The booked moved me in a way that nothing had before...it hit all the right nerves.
After that I started shooting like crazy, but not only was I shooting, I was also showing my work to ad agencies and local magazines in Alabama. The next thing I knew, they started giving me work. For a couple of years, I built up my work and my name in Alabama, shooting everything I could. I entered my work into a contest, American Photography, and two of my photos ended up being chosen to go into their annual book. They throw a party each year, so my wife and I decide to attend the party in New York. At that party, I was introduced to lots of people and through those contacts I met Marcel Saba, my current agent. He decided to sign me as a young photographer, working from Alabama. I started getting editorial work that had been filtered down from New York. I was shooting in places like Atlanta, Nashville, Birmingham, etc. After a year of shooting in the south, I decided that it’s now or never in regards to moving to New York. I knew I wanted bigger assignments. My wife and I moved a few months later- in February of 2011- and Marcel decided to move me to his full time New York City roster and that's where I am, two years later.
What motivated you to move to NY rather than another city, like LA?
First and foremost, New York had always been a place where my wife, Jana, and I dreamed of living. After falling in love with photography and realizing that most of my photography idols lived in New York, it was a no brainer. I also felt like the most of my favorite portrait photographer lived in New York and I wanted to be surrounded by them.
How did you find your agency, Redux? What opportunities have they opened up for you that you wouldn't have been able to find yourself? Also, for all the photographers out there who are looking to be represented, what advise would you give them based on your personal experience?
I think one of the biggest advantages to having to an agent is having validation. Once you have someone who has been in the industry for years, who is well connected and who is backing up your work, things start to change. I don’t think having an agent has made me a better photographer, it’s just exposed me to more people...given me a greater reach. To me, having an agent is something that needs to happen naturally. I was just reading a blog the other day from artbuyersarepeopletoo.tumblr.com...they said, “We always tell photographers who are looking for agents they need to really like their rep(s)…like, really, really like them. It’s like a marriage. A word to the wise, if your gut tells you no…keep looking for the right one.” I think this is good advice. Focus on your work first and foremost - if it’s good work, an agent will find you. Don’t expect anything too quickly. This business is all about persistence.
How did your opportunity with Time magazine come about and did that also open up any other opportunities for you?
I was approached by TIME to shoot a story for their website on genome sequencing. I did the story which took about a week of traveling and shooting. As far as I knew this was only intended for their website. It was honestly not the most glamorous shoot but I hoped that it would lead to other shoots for TIME (definitely did not think it would lead to a cover though!) so I pushed myself extremely hard on that week of shooting. After the story had been published on the internet, I got a call from TIME’s director of photography, Kira Pollack. She told me that this was the first time in history that they were going to turn a website story into a cover - she asked if I’d be interested in shooting the cover. I pretty much fell out of my chair - I was in complete disbelief. The next thing I know I’m in Milk studios with Jonathan Woods, one of the photo editors of TIME, shooting the cover. I’m sure it’s led to some things, but honestly, I would not be able to specifically point them out.
How did you land your first celebrity job and how did it go?
I did not receive my first celebrity job until my wife and I had moved to New York. I was traveling through the airport one day and I noticed an issue of The Hollywood Reporter on the newsstand. I took a couple of minutes and flipped through it and realized that some of their shoots took place in New York. I thought to myself that I should try and make a connection with the photo editors at THR so that maybe one day I could be one of their contributors. I remember emailing one of the photo editors at THR about how I’d love to shoot for them one day and how I hope they would keep me in mind for future shoots. She responded, “Next time you’re in L.A. (which is where they are based) please stop by and see us.” I was happy that I got a response, but deep down I knew that I was not going to be making it to L.A. anytime soon and also realized that this was going to have to be something I pursued really hard. A few months later, my wife and I decided to book a ticket to L.A. to visit some of our friends. While we were in L.A. I emailed the people at THR to try and get a meeting. For the next 4 days, I never heard anything back from them. The time came for us to catch our flight back to NYC, and while we were in the car headed to the airport, I got an email from the photo editor, “Can you meet now, I have about 15 minutes?” I remember turning the car around not caring if we missed our flight. I was going to have this meeting. I met with the head photo editor and it went great. A month later I had my first “celebrity job”. I feel like I did a great job on the first shoot they gave me and the magazine was really happy. After that, the jobs just kept building with THR, and then other magazines started hiring me to shoot celebrities.
Being just 26 years old, would you say you've already found your path on where you would like to go in your career or are you still searching?
I think I’ve found what I’m most attracted to and that’s people. I can safely say that as long as I’m making photographs, there will be people involved. I might decide to venture off into another subject matter such as landscapes or still life, but I will always love making portraits as well. Although I might have found what I like most about photography does not mean that I will not have to constantly evolve. I think that’s a very important thing for photographers to remember. Being too comfortable in your style can sometimes result in boring photographs. I heard this quote the other day from Steven Spielberg that resonated with me. “I don’t work well when I’m fearless.” Too me that basically means to try things that you have not done before, experiment, push the boundaries a little, be uncomfortable for a change.
When working with celebrities, is there a specific protocol that takes place when you get the word about the shoot? How far in advance do you find out about it and what must you do to prepare for it?
In my experience, when it comes to working with celebrities, you are never given much time to make the photograph. It’s usually 10-30 minutes where you have to get something great. I treat every shoot the same for the most part, but when I’m given only a small window of time to make a photograph, I make sure that I’m extremely prepared. There have been times that I’ve been asked to shoot someone with only 24 hours of advance notice. Things that I try to do to prepare are scouting the location, doing research on the subject, writing down ideas, writing down setups, drawing out my light, etc. So when I show up, I somewhat know what I’m going for, but I always like to leave room for something un-expected, that’s usually when you get the gold.
Once the shoot is over, how many levels of approval must the image(s) go through before they are showcased in public? Also, what are they primarily used for?
Usually what happens is that I pick out my favorite photographs from the shoot - let’s call those the selects. I then send the selects over to the photo editor at the magazine who then picks his/her favorites. Then we will sometimes talk about the photographs, layout, color, etc. The photo editor will then send me their chosen selects in which I will start post production (or send to my retoucher) before sending hi res files. Usually, for the most part we all agree on the photo that was chosen. I try to be careful and only send over images that I would like to see published.
Do you have a preferred setup that you use for most of your work in terms of camera and lighting?
Usually my choice of lighting is based on who I’m photographing, the location, and the mood that I want to present. I feel like I’m pretty decent at trying out all different kinds of lighting. I don’t really like to have a set light for every shoot - it’s fun to try something new or different. I recently started a new blog (http://www.millermobleyblog.com ), where I will go in depth about my shoots and also discuss a little bit of the lighting. As far as my camera goes, I shoot digital medium format...a Phase One 645DF to be exact.
What is one thing that you regret in your career so far?
I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but nothing comes to mind. I feel like it wasn’t long ago that I started this career. Any small mistakes I have made, I have ended up learning from and becoming a better photographer, so I wouldn't call them regrets. I’m sure I may have some bigger regrets down the road, but right now I can't pinpoint any.
What has been the best moment of your career so far?
Definitely shooting the cover of TIME Magazine. I honestly thought that was a far fetched dream and that if it did happen, it would not be until I was an extremely well established photographer. I definitely did not expect to do it at 26 years old.
If you met yourself when you were first starting out, what advice would you give your former self now that you are here?
I think I would tell myself to listen to my gut. I would say to shoot what you love. Make photographs that make you happy first. Make work that personally moves you. I feel like I’ve always been that way for the most part, but there was a time that I was making work that I did not resonate with. I would also talk about how important it is to make your own path. One of the most beautiful things about our industry is that everyone for the most part made their own unique path that led to success. Don’t pay much attention to how others did it or the success that others are having because, most likely, you will get there in a different and unique way.
Be sure to check out Miller's website at http://millermobley.com