You have to be brave to be a great people photographer. To go up to total strangers on the street or to come face to face with A-list celebrities in the studio with the goal of creating an intimate portrait is daunting. Yet, Brooklyn-based, Tuscaloosa, Alabama-born-and-raised Miller Mobley, still in his 20s, has managed to navigate the difficult roads to the top of the celebrity and portrait photography worlds in an impressively short time.
DPP: How did your interest in photography develop?
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.
DPP: Did you apply to film school to learn the craft?
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.
DPP: When you print in a traditional darkroom, you really feel the ƒ-stops and know what a good exposure looks like. This is something that photographers who have known only the digital world often struggle with. They tend not to "feel" the exposures and truly understand ISOs and ƒ-stops. Why did you start focusing on still photography and, in particular, on portraiture?
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.
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?
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?
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?
Mobley: Eventually, but during the first four months of being in New York, I didn’t get one job. It was scary. I’m this young kid doing well in Alabama, and I move up to New York, and all of a sudden, I’m this small fish in a very big pond. I pushed really hard. I photographed a lot of friends and people that I would meet randomly on the street or subway; I was always shooting new portraits. I was very persistent in trying to get clientele. My dad is an entrepreneur with a couple of businesses, and I feel like I’ve gotten that side from him, including how to manage and operate a business and how to market yourself. A big part of photography is being talented and taking good pictures, but photography, at the end of the day, if you want to make a living at it, is a business. I heard this quote, "Hard work will always overcome natural talent." You have to be persistent at marketing yourself. There are many photographers who are super-talented who don’t seem to get work. I started researching magazines that photographed celebrities, and one of those magazines was The Hollywood Reporter out in L.A. I was eventually able to get a meeting with photo director Jennifer Laski. I’m a big believer in meeting people in person and shaking their hand. She needed to put a face to my work. We had a great meeting. Two months later, I got my first job from her, to photograph Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski of the Morning Joe TV show in New York. She loved what I did, and the next shoot she gave me was Heidi Klum. It has just snowballed from there. You work hard and keep your head down and people will give you a big break. Jennifer Laski gave me mine.
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?
Mobley: A lot of that’s preparation—phone calls, emails, talking with a set designer, talking with the photo editor, talking with my assistants, talking with the studio and getting equipment together. By preparing to the "T" and sketching out every single setup and then testing everything, I can be there with that person in front of my camera and not have to worry about all the other details. I draw out what I want to do as a guideline. We can always veer off from that. Celebrities like to do things quickly. They usually like me because I’m always prepared. The different setups we do are like different stations. We do some frames on one set, then move right to another. Everything is pre-lit. I like to make celebrities feel comfortable. I talk with them about great restaurants, normal stuff like that, not their careers. There are publicists, stylists, wardrobe, makeup, hair people behind me. That’s the reality of it. It comes down to having a good team and being super-prepared. I love the production of photography itself, especially the big productions. There’s something about having a big team together on a project that gets me excited. I love that energy.
See more of Miller Mobley’s photography on his website at millermobley.com.