Starting from homemade skateboarding and wakeboarding videos in his native Alabama, 20-something Miller Mobley, now living in New York, is making an impact with his stunning celebrity and portrait work.
By Mark Edward Harris, Photography By Miller Mobley
The cast of School of Rock—Jack Black, Robert Tsai and Miranda Cosgrove—photographed for Entertainment Weekly upon the film's 10th anniversary in 2013.
Mobley: One of my instructors showed me In the American West by Richard Avedon, and that opened up a whole new world for me. Up until that point, I was taking pictures of everything—flowers, empty fields, buildings, portraits. When I saw this book, I said, "Wow, this guy took pictures of people that were authentic, emotional and dramatic. These images move me. That's what I want to do." I thought it would be amazing to get paid to take pictures of people. I really loved the idea of that. Up until then, I knew I liked photography, but I didn't know what I wanted to focus on. Some people never decide, which is fine, but I realized that if I wanted to make this a career, I had to get very good at one particular aspect of photography. So I bought a Mamiya 67 and started shooting a lot of medium-format film. I fell in love with the process. I didn't use any artificial lighting at that time. I had a light meter, and I would drive around in my car, then park and walk up to strangers who I found visually interesting and ask if I could take their portraits. Usually, they'd say, "Sure." They were thinking, "What's this kid doing?" But I didn't care. All the other students in my photo classes were taking pictures of their college hipster friends, typical college kid photographs, and I wanted to be different and photograph people with character. It was Avedon who gave me a direction. With a camera, you can capture the emotion that the human face can bring out.
From Mobley's Blackbelt project, Mac Brown in Greensboro, Alabama.
DPP: How did you move into digital photography?
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.
DPP: What has been the evolution of your use of artificial lighting?
Dan Patrick photographed for Esquire.
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?
Alfonzo Noland in Eutaw, Alabama, for the Blackbelt project.
Mobley: I started showing my work to advertising agencies and magazines in Alabama when I had only been shooting for about a year. I was a bit naive, but I knew that if I wanted to make money at this, I had to be out there hustling. Nobody is going to hire you if you don't show them your work. I started making some commercials and shooting stills for this local ad agency for their clients that were car dealerships and jewelers. That gave me money to support myself and buy more photography equipment. I decided to go full force with photography, and by my senior year, I felt that college was holding me back, so I left. I put a portfolio together and showed it to the largest ad agencies in Alabama, which were in Birmingham. I researched online and found that art buyers were the ones to target, contacted them and set up appointments. Those meetings led to jobs, and my wife and I moving to Birmingham for me to direct commercials and shoot the still portions of campaigns. I also flew up to New York and met Marcel Saba of Redux Pictures who put me on his roster as one of the photographers from the Southeast. That was amazing. He would give me small editorial assignments in Nashville, Atlanta or Birmingham that came down from New York. That got my name in front of editorial people in New York and got me a little comfortable with that market. I was making a good living, but realized that I knew I had to try New York as a base. That's where so many of the great photographers lived or had spent time in. Editorially, New York is definitely where it's at because that's where most of the magazines are. In 2011, my wife and I made the big move. I knew that experience of moving to New York and trying to compete with the world's top photographers would make me a better photographer.
DPP: And that's where you started getting the celebrity assignments?