Miller Mobley: When I was really young, I was into acting and directing. It had nothing to do with film or photography. It was about production. I always loved the behind-the-scenes aspect of creating something. I was doing backyard, little productions and putting on shows in the attic. My mom had bought me a video camera when I was 14 or 15, so that evolved into making little movies. That was the start.
DPP: What was the subject of your early productions?
Mobley: My brother and friends and I would go to the movies and get inspired, then come home and reenact a scene with my video camera. I would be the director. Also, my friends were into skateboarding and wakeboarding, and I would make their videos for them. I taught myself how to use some of the editing software, and I would add music to it. From there, the interest grew to the point where I wanted to move out to L.A. as a cinematographer to shoot feature films.
Mobley: I applied to USC, NYU and a few others. Every single school rejected me because I was a terrible student. I'm not very good at organized education—going to class, doing homework—so I ended up going to school in my backyard, the University of Alabama. They didn't have a film program. The next best thing was studio art where I could take the few photo classes they offered, as well as classes in sculpture, painting and graphic design. The photography classes had us shooting black-and-white film. I learned a lot by printing my own photographs. With black-and-white, you can't achieve a great sense of depth unless you get the contrast right, and you get black elements on top of a white, or vice versa, to give a sense of space.
Mobley: I convinced my photo teacher to let me shoot digital for an independent study portrait project. This was around 2007. That's when I bought my first digital camera, a Canon 20D. I was interested in photographing different people, different characters. I decided to email mormon.org to photograph Mormon missionaries. The next thing I knew, I had missionaries knocking on my door. I told them about the portrait project and they were up for it. One of those portraits was published as part of a major photo competition. These days, I shoot with a Phase One 645DF with a P 40+ digital back.
Mobley: I would get online and watch behind-the-scenes videos of photographers at work. Most of them were using Profoto lights, so I thought, "I need some Profotos." I went out and bought two Profoto compacts and started experimenting. My light is ever-changing and refining. I still see the work of other photographers that blows me away. "How do they do it? How can I achieve this?" I still do lighting tests on my wife and friends and myself. When I'm traveling, I use the Profoto Acute system. They're lightweight and easy to carry around. When I do studio work, I use the 8A 2400-watt packs. My light modifiers range from 74-inch softboxes to medium strip gridded softboxes to beauty dishes to the Mola Euro beauty dish to hard reflectors. It depends on what I'm going for. I try to establish that before the shoot happens and sketch out lighting schemes. I don't like to get to a shoot and figure it out then.
DPP: Any particular photographers whose behind-the-scenes videos inspired and educated you?
Mobley: Annie Leibovitz. She was like my photography school. Vanity Fair posts behind-the-scenes videos of their cover shoots. I was all over that. I didn't know who she was until one Christmas when my grandmother gave me a book by Annie because she knew I was into photography. A lot of my photographic influences have been through other people exposing me to someone.
DPP: How did you turn your interest in photography into a profession?
DPP: And that's where you started getting the celebrity assignments?
DPP: Was your dramatic and perhaps very telling portrait of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman shot for The Hollywood Reporter?
Mobley: Yes, it was. It was a shoot with him and Christopher Walken. They were doing press for the movie A Late Quartet. Hoffman was very polite and gracious. He introduced himself to everyone in the room. At the same time, you could tell that something wasn't right. I don't know what it was, but you could sense a kind of sadness in him. It was a very quick photo shoot, maybe 10 minutes, as celebrity shoots normally are.
DPP: How do you tap into something in a person to create a unique portrait in such a short amount of time?
See more of Miller Mobley's photography on his website at millermobley.com.