“It doesn’t just speak of a great idea but also about a great friendship”

Sandro Miller - Exclusive interview by Pesti Est
Sandro Miller is an acclaimed photographer who lives in Chicago, and he is very sought after in his field since decades. His exhibition entitled 'Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters' has just opened in Kunsthalle, Budapest. We asked him about this special project, and also about his dedication to photography and the friendship between him and John Malkovich.

Sandro Miller (1958) is an internationally acclaimed American photographer.


He intended to be a photographer since he was 16 years old. He is an autodidact.


He first met John Malkovich in the '90s, they made several projects together.

- Was it an obvious choice in starting this project to have John Malkovich as your model for all the sixty-plus images, including portraits of Truman Capote, Alfred Hitchcock, Che Guevera, Albert Einstein, Meryl Streep, Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe and so?

- I think probably one of the brilliant aspects about this project is that I collaborated with the one man who is my muse, and I was able to turn him into sixty different characters. If you go out and find somebody who looks more like Alfred Hitchcock than John Malkovich does, it would have taken away a little bit of the challenge of the project. On a deeper level, this exhibition doesn’t only speak of a great idea but also about a great friendship, the complete respect that two people have for each other. There is no question in my mind that John is a genius. He was given a gift, probably like no other, to be able to feel comfortable being a child, a woman, a sex symbol, an old fat man, a skinny gay man. There is nothing that John doesn’t feel comfortable with. He is so confident in who he is that he can change like a chameleon to anything he wants to. People ask me how long it took me to do this project and I tell them it took me forty years, because it took forty years of education. As for John, it took him fifty years, as he’s been acting for that long. You don’t walk into a project like this inexperienced and say “I’m going to recreate these great images”, it doesn’t happen that way. It takes two people who went down on their roads for many years and have dedicated their lives to their crafts and perfected them.

- You and John Malkovich have a long history, apart from photos you also did short films together.
Yes, we met about 22 years ago and already the very first shoot was wonderful, there was a mutual respect and we knew that we’re going to work together again. John would often contact me when he came to Chicago. We met up for a beer, we did some shots or a short film. You, know John and I just play. We’re like a couple of little boys, you know I walk up to the door, ring the door bell and ask if John can come out to play. And we play together.

-How did you start working on this project?

- Every image was deeply researched, I understood the time in history when the photograph was shot, what type of processes, cameras were used, whether it was a daguerreotype, film, glass plate or whatever may have been – that was all part of my research which was very educational for me, too.

- But you didn’t revisit the same technique, like the portrait of Abraham Lincoln which is not a daguerreotype.

- Because of the efficiency of the digitalcamera, I had to use that. Also, because I didn’t have John for an unlimited amount of time. He would come in and maybe we would have two days to shoot. Still, what we do, I shoot 90-95% in camera and then I use my computer as a dark room for example to add the grain, the contrast. We do slight movements of retouching and cleaning up in post-production and we come to an image like that of Abraham Lincoln that was shot in the mid-1800s and since there isn’t an image that hasn’t started to distract because of the fading of the chemicals, I wanted to add the same kind of feeling to it as well. So, I photograph little pieces of distraction and we add that to the photograph in order to have a similar feel and how this photograph would be viewed today in a museum.

-A project like this obviously requires post-production work, but how do you feel about retouching in general?

- I think retouching is a necessity. The masters didn’t have the same retouching tools that we have today but they all retouched. They all had people who retouched and beautified their images. Today, unfortunately, people are a bit heavy-handed on retouching. I think we’ve produced great retouchers and shitty photographers. I think today, they’re probably teaching a lot more about the retouching process at schools than they are about actually taking the photo correctly in the first place. I’m really proud that I’m forty years into the business and that I was here before the digital era and before retouching was so easy to do on the computer and I learnt how to do it in a way that it really should be done. It’s called oldschool.

- Do you remember when you switched to digital camera?
- I do, and I was actually kind of “forced”to. I’m an ambassador with Nikon and it happened when Nikon came to me and offered to put my name on an add campaign if I shot with their digital camera, and in all honesty it would have been very difficult to say no. For some time, I’d thought I was going to hold out and going to be the one dinosaur that continued to shot film but that was a stupid thought. In the end, I embraced digital, it’s a beautiful thing. It’s progress, and you either hop on the wagon of progress or you get left behind, especially in the commercial world. In advertising they don’t even know how to look at films anymore, they don’t even have the equipment for it. But I think in the art world, film is still acceptable. I love to pull out some films sometimes and shoot with it. It’s much more romantic. Film is romantic, while on digital you have to make it look romantic.

-Among the photos of the Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters series there are some that were taken in 2014, others in 2017. Why the big gap between the sessions?

- It was basically because of our schedule. John and I, we’re both extremely busy and the time to take these images is very long. I realised the idea in 2011, then I researched all the images I wanted to reproduce which took me about two years. Everything had to be extremely sought-out and all the details had to be perfect, otherwise the project would have been a failure. So, in 2014, me and John, we were finally able to get together to begin the project and at that time we did about forty images. We shot at three different sessions and the project was finally completed in August, 2017, so the whole project contains 63 images.

- So, you won’t be continuing the project?
- I think August 2017 was what I call the last sitting of the Homage series. First of all, because these truly are the images that really moved me throughout my career. Of course, there are many, many more but at some point I had to complete it, if for one thing because financially it’s very expensive to do a project like this because of the large crew it requires, and there also comes the time to move on.

-Did you have any idea at the time that this was going to be award-winning work?

- I didn’t do this project for fame or for money. I did it for healing. It was about giving me a dream to look forward to, so that I may be able to heal myself and get back to work. When you’re fighting a life-threatening disease, it’s like a war, it’s you against the disease and you have to fight it with everything you can. If your immune system is down, it will eat you up. If your spirit is down, it will eat you up. So you fight it and by adding a dream to your spirit, it gives you something to look forward to. It also gave me something to do while I couldn’t work. It gave me something to think about and research. I wanted to share something with the people but we had no idea how the public would take it and want so much more of it.
-You’re a self-taught photographer. Did you see it as an advantage or disadvantage?
-  I believe it’s been a big advantage. First of all, I feel like I had to try much harder to prove myself. Secondly, I don’t think I’ve been jaded by the opinions of teachers and professors, I think I made my own path and I had a lot of failures. I have a collection of a thousand books and it’s been those books that I purchased, went through and dissected that I learnt about photography from. I dissect the images, I look where the lights come from, I try to get into the head of the photographer and understand how he was able to capture that decisive moment that he was after. It’s been a journey and I appreciate being self-taught. Coming from a relatively poor family, with no father, raised by a single mother, I think all this fed into the characteristics that I needed to be able to go deep into my portraiture and to direct and get hold of something special, something different.

- Whether it’s a series of bikers, boxers, dancers or ethnic groups you always seem to immerse yourself in people. Are you interested in people?
- I think one of the gifts that was given to me is this will and passion to learn about people and cultures. I have a deep curiosity and I like to fulfil that curiosity through photography. I read a book from Hemingway about bullfighting and I say “Wow, that was really interesting. What about meeting a bullfighter and spending a month photographing bullfighters?” Or bikers. You read and see all these movies about bikers and often they are portrayed as beer-drinking sons of bitches but in reality many of them are the salt of the earth – kind, loving people, many of them came back the Vietnam war and just got into motorcycles and went on the road for freedom. There’s something much deeper than the long hair and the tattoos, they also have a soul that I would have never known about unless I had gone and experienced it first hand myself. The same is true about the project I’ve just finished about the indigenous people of Papua New Guinea. I read a bit about these tribes, and of course, knew that Michael Rockefeller was eaten by the head-hunters of Papua New Guinea and I was just like, “I’ve got to go to the jungle!” It’s fulfilling curiosities, it’s wanting to know more and getting intimate. I don’t take a camera with a 300-mm lens and hide behind a tree and take pictures of people. That’s not how I work. I go up to them, I touch them, I hold their hands and learn about them. It’s much more intimate. I don’t just take and not give. For me it’s got to be some kind of connection, a certain degree of intimacy. If I don’t get this connection, I can’t get their beautiful little secrets that I’m looking for from their hands, mouths and eyes that give me something to offer the viewer to talk about. Also, when I take a portrait of a person so much depends on how I feel that day or on what I what I may have gone through during that past week. So much of myself goes into that portrait and sometimes even how I might feel about a person. I remember photographing a gentleman in the Pentagon and he was the man who controlled the internet and was something of a warmonger and automatically I didn’t like this person, I couldn’t make him look good, instead, I made him look evil.
-You were famously invited to Cuba during the embargo to shoot the Cuban Olympic athletes.
- The opportunity to shoot all these athletes was incredible, but I had problems with my government. They wanted to take my passport for going there, so I went illegally six times.
-What are you working on at the moment?

- I’m working on a black hair series, and hoping to go to Johannesburg at the end of this year. I’m also working on aproject right now that is called “shoes”, portraying the shoes of important people who have passed away, like Mohamed Ali and Martin Luther King. I always try to move forward, I think I’m a bit of an addict.
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