Photographer Sandro Miller Talks Malkovich, Mimicry And Muses

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 7, 2014 10:05PM

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Sandro Miller, Dorothea Lange / Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936), 2014 (Photo courtesy Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago)

Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” is one of the most dramatic and important moments in the history of American photography. Lange’s 1936 photographs of California migrant worker Florence Owens Thompson and her children capture the haggard desperation of Thompson and her brood during the Great Depression, and the sobering realization that Thompson looks far older than the 32 years she told Lange.

But the photo above wasn’t taken by Lange and Thompson looks a hell of a lot like John Malkovich.

“Migrant Mother” is one of several iconic pictures photographer Sandro Miller chose to recreate with Malkovich as the central figure for the exhibit Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters opening tonight at Catherine Edelman Gallery. Miller wanted to pay tribute to the photographers who inspired him to pick up a camera by painstakingly re-creating classic photographs such as “Migrant Mother;” Irving Penn’s portraits of Truman Capote and Pablo Picasso; Diane Arbus’ “Identical Twins;” Carl Fischer’s portrait of Muhammad Ali with arrows sticking out of him; and Art Shay’s capture of a nude Simone de Beauvoir freshening up in the Wicker Park flophouse Nelson Algren called home for years.

Miller said Malkovich was the only person he could work with on this project. “John was this beautiful, clean canvas that would allow me to paint all over it.”

Miller’s relationship with Malkovich dates back 17 years. “I had been working with Steppenwolf Theatre creating their banners, playbills and advertising campaigns,” Miller recalled. “John needed to come in to have his portrait taken for a play he was in and we just hit it off and I remember creating these extremely powerful black-and-white portraits of John; he was so flexible and versatile. He gave me so much as we were working together. He doesn't have just one look—his range of emotions is so wide and he was able to go there for me.”

Miller flew to France to pitch the project to Malkovich, who was immediately on board, and Miller spent a year researching the photos for the project to "get into the head of the photographer."

“The whole idea came about from working with John for 17 years and watching this incredible genius in front of my camera, how he was able to transform himself, morph himself into these characters that I had asked him to become way before this project came to life,” Miller said.

“He walked in with no fear and allowed me to process my ideas through him.”

Miler’s photos, at first glance, almost looked photoshopped. But the photographer, who calls himself a “minimalist” when it comes to digital photo editing—he said he only used a bit of editing to approximate the photo grain of certain photos—worked with "an A-list crew" including designers and stylists Leslie Pace and Randy Wilder, set builder Angela Feeney and print studio JS Graphics to re-create the photos as best he could. Miller and his team studied every detail of Shay’s photo to make it look as though the bathroom is in a single occupancy residence in 1950 Chicago when Shay captured Beauvoir au naturel. The combover in Miller's homage to Yousuf Karsh's portrait of Ernest Hemingway was studied down to the hair. The self-portrait of Andy Warhol was silkscreened, so Miller and his team silkscreened their recreation with Malkovich. Look at Miller’s re-creations of Herb Ritts’ photos of Jack Nicholson as The Joker: you can almost feel Malkovich getting lost in the character.

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Sandro Miller, Herb Ritts / Jack Nicholson, London (1988) (A, B, C, D), 2014 (Photos Courtesy Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago)

Miller's working relationship with Malkovich is the primary factor for this spot-on performance, but Miller added he takes great lengths to create a perfect work environment. "Regardless of who I work with, I give them extreme respect. It's important for them to understand I love and respect them as a person and that they're in a safe place here."

Miller said the 32 photos in the exhibit were chosen both as an homage to his influences and from constant study. "I'm constantly buying photography books. I study them. I dissect them. When you do that every single day like I do, there are going to be certain images that will slap you in the face and you're going to go 'Wow! That is unbelievable.'" Miller cites Irving Penn's portrait of Picasso as the first image that inspired him to become a photographer as a teen in Elgin, Illinois. "My life changed at that moment."

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Sandro Miller, Irving Penn / Pablo Picasso, Cannes, France (1957), 2014 (Photo courtesy Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago)

Once Malkovich was able to work with Miller on the project, things progressed at a rapid pace. "I knew I had John for only a short amount of time. I needed to be respectful of that, so we had to work quickly."

Miller resisted the flirtation of moving to New York thanks to his mentor, Victor Skrebneski. "Victor is the reason why I stayed in Chicago," Miller recalled. "I watched the success he had in Chicago and I stayed because of that. I was a single parent at 23 and needed to stay close to my mother so she could help raise my daughter."

Miller's 40-year career has struck a fine balance between personal art and commercial work. Today he's one of the most in-demand commercial photographers on the planet and is an ambassador for Nikon cameras. In Chicago, with a thriving advertising and marketing industry, he's never been wanting for work. As for his personal work, Miller constantly finds inspiration. The author of seven books, Miller has traveled to Spain to work on a book about bullfighting with legendary bullfighter Joselito. He's photographed bikers for his book American Bikers. Miller's most recent book, Eyes of Morocco, was inspired by Irving Penn's photographs of working class people and has earned Miller a nomination for International Photographer of the Year.

"Inspiration comes from so many different places. Right now I've been inspired to shoot dead animals after a bird flew into my window."

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Sandro Miller, Art Shay / Simone de Beauvoir (1950), 2014 (Photo courtesy Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago)

Miller has plans to add more photos to the Malkovich project and take the exhibit international. Plans are in the works to bring the exhibit to London, Warsaw, Istanbul, Paris, Los Angeles, New York and other cities. Early press on the photographs have led to a heightened interest in the exhibit in an out of Chicago since the photos were first made public in September and blew up through social media channels and blogs.

"John emailed me about a week into this and said, 'Sandro, you created a fucking tidal wave!'"

"And that's just the beginning,"

Sandro Miller's Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters opens 5:30 p.m. at Catherine Edelman Gallery, 300 W. Superior St. The exhibit runs through Jan. 31, 2015. For gallery hours, please visit the gallery's website.