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Being Sandro Miller

A photographer collaborates with renowned actor John Malkovich to create an homage as a thank you to past masters

Chicago-based Sandro Miller is a sculptor of sorts, using light as a chisel to bring out the essence of the sitters before his camera lens. His photography series Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters, exemplifies this mastery of advanced lighting techniques.

To create the series, the Lucie Award-winning photographer set out to recreate 62 historic photographs during two marathon multiday shoots in 2014 and 2017. For each image, Miller worked with renowned actor John Malkovich, who with each costume change channeled the original subject’s personality.

But Miller’s skill would be tested: He faced the daunting tasks of replicating the lighting schematics of a cross-section of photographic masters as well as matching the wardrobe and creating the set for each shot. In the end, the photographer feels he learned a valuable lesson not only about perseverance but also photographic history.

Digital Photo Pro: What inspired you to do your Homage to Photographic Masters series?

Sandro Miller: About six years ago, I became very ill with stage 4 cancer. As I lay in bed wondering if I would return to my family and my work, I began to think of how I might be able to say thank you to all the photographers past and present that have inspired me and been so influential to my work. Many of the photographers were no longer here with us, so I needed to dream of an idea that would transcend into a project that would be known as a thank you to all these great masters. I was able to close my eyes and see each and every iconic image that has been so important to me—the portraits taken by the great masters that changed the way I looked at portraiture.

DPP: Was the initial idea to give your interpretation of the images or to actually recreate them?

SM: My dream was to take these images that were imbedded in my memory and to recreate them down to the very finest of detail. I felt that if I truly did my research on wardrobe, hairstyles, makeup, backgrounds, lighting, composition, propping, on every aspect of these iconic images and recreate them down to the finest details to the point that it would often be difficult to tell the differences from my recreation to the real images, my idea would succeed in bringing great interest not only to the project but begin a resurgence in the interest in the original iconic photographs.

Annie Leibovitz/ Meryl Streep, New York City (1981), 2014
Annie Leibovitz/ Meryl Streep, New York City (1981), 2014

DPP: How did you begin to turn this idea into reality?

SM: Once my idea was conceived and I felt that I was onto something that could be a success, I had to make a decision of whom I would use to represent each of the subjects in each of the 62 shots.

At first, I thought of using 62 different actors or actresses for the project, casting people that best fit the subject of the iconic image. Then, as I thought longer and deeper about my idea, I began to contemplate what this project would look and feel like if I used the same actor in every shot. It would be one actor that had the range to take on the challenge of being both a man and a woman, crossing the gender line with no hesitation or fear, and could play everyone from a young boy and a sexy movie star to an older politician. Fortunately, for many years, I had been working with the great actor John Malkovich. I met John while shooting the ensemble of the Steppenwolf Theatre in the mid-’90s. It was that very first shoot with John that would solidify a long-term friendship between the two of us, so much so that he would become my number one muse. I put together the proposal and shot list to hopefully sell him on the idea.

DPP: Did he sign off on the project right away?

SM: This wasn’t the type of idea you just put into an email to try to convince one of the world’s best actors to participate in. So, I hopped on an airplane and flew to the south of France for a person-to-person meeting.

After a wonderful dinner and two bottles of wine, I presented my idea. He knew every image I put in front of him, from August Sander’s “Bricklayer” and Man Ray’s “Tears” to Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and Irving Penn’s “Truman Capote.” He’s an art and photography aficionado and was truly amused by the idea and accepted the challenge.

DPP: How did you deconstruct the original images to recreate them so faithfully?

SM: It would take me nearly two years of research, working with my assistants and stylist, hair and makeup, props and prosthetics people to ensure that every detail was covered. We would Google each and every image to find out everything we possibly could about each shot, including if there were proof sheets to see before and after shots of the historic image. We pulled books from my collection—I have nearly 1,200 photography books—that have my favorite images in it.

Arnold Newman/ Igor Stravinsky, New York, NY (1960), 2014
Arnold Newman/ Igor Stravinsky, New York, NY (1960), 2014

I would blow the original image up on my computer so big that the eye of the subject would fill the screen, and I would study the eyeball for the details of the type of lights that were used by the master of the iconic shot. Detail after detail had to be discovered, with no detail to be left uncovered. After all, I was paying homage to the greatest photographers and images of our time. There wasn’t any room for overlooking even the slightest details. I come from the old school of doing my work, and that’s to do your homework, do it right in camera and not to leave it up to fixing things in postproduction. I truly wanted to create the work the same way the master that came before me created his or her work. I am not saying I didn’t use any postproduction, but I like to use my postproduction much like we used to use the darkroom.

DPP: How so?

SM: We’re in the digital age. We’ve moved past daguerreotypes, glass plates and now past film. As much and as hard as we try to do everything in-camera, some cleaning up has to be done when you’re putting on wigs that have very fine netting. We needed to take care of those sorts of things in post. Digital is something that we need to embrace. But I still play by the old-school rules. Do it right and use post only as a tool. I’m a purist and, I believe, a master at my craft. Doing the research and doing the homework is the ultimate way to perfection.

DPP: Did you do some of the images on location and some on set?

SM: All were done in studio. My set builder, Angela Finney, went into the deepest details to make them look as original and as real as possible, including using period-appropriate light fixtures, whatever the image called for. Stylist Leslie Pace did the same, researching the clothing from the various eras that we were going to cover and finding or having made each piece of wardrobe. She distressed the clothing to fit the look, if needed, such as for the Dorothea Lange image.

The week before that shoot, we set up the most extensively detailed sets for the first day, including Art Shay’s Simone de Beauvoir hotel bathroom set, the set for Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” and the set for Carl Fischer’s shot of Muhammad Ali. Those sets would then be broken down and the next day’s sets installed. We did 41 shots in six 14-hour days in 2014. Then, in August of 2017, we shot another 21 in three days for a total of 62 to complete the homage series.

DPP: Malkovich transformed himself into the characters he was portraying in the images.

SM: Not only is John a genius, but he is a perfectionist and a true master of his craft, an actor that studies his characters deeply and with much concern to detail.

Philippe Halsman/ Salvador Dali (1954), 2014
Philippe Halsman/ Salvador Dali (1954), 2014

I put together the list of images along with copies of the images that we were going to recreate and sent these to him so he could begin his study. Upon his arrival at the studio, John was well familiar with the expectations of the day and would already be deep into his methods of approaching each sitter that he would be asked to become. With hair and makeup and at times prosthetics and wardrobe taking up to four hours for each character, John would work closely with the original image by having it taped on the mirror in front of him. It would be in that makeup chair that the transformation, the morphing from John into the character, would begin.

My makeup/hair person, Randy Wilder, found the perfect wigs and facial hair for us to use. We no longer interacted with John as John Malkovich but with John as Marilyn Monroe, Che Guevara, Alfred Hitchcock, Ernest Hemingway, Migrant Mother or whoever else he was becoming.

On set, it was much like John and I were these young boys, best friends playing theater together, acting out on this small stage, he the sitter and I the master photographer of the iconic image. This is where all the magic, all the research, every fine detail came into play.

John was always brilliant in his performances. As he would transform deep into character, he would often leave the crew of 30 and me in awe. My crew all had their responsibilities in order to make this shoot a success. We all knew the importance of perfection and the consequences of failure. We all knew, including John, that if we didn’t conquer every single shot to complete perfection, we could become the laughing stock of this very brutal industry. After all, why were we messing with these iconic images in the first place? Why would one have the balls to even think he could do these great masters justice?

For me, it was always about saying thank you to these masters and also for me to find a light for healing from my illness. It gave me hope and something to look forward to. The research was healing and enlightening. I got even closer to these wonderful images that had inspired me and helped make me the photographer I am today. This project was an education in itself and really deepened my understanding of the richness of every one of the images we recreated.

Richard Avedon/ John Ford, Director, Bel Air, California (April 11, 1972), 2017
Richard Avedon/ John Ford, Director, Bel Air, California (April 11, 1972), 2017

DPP: Did you use different types of cameras and film to try and get the exact feel of the original?

SM: Part of my research was to know the kinds of cameras, lights and films that were used by the masters. I would never be able to use all the types of films and cameras that were used, but the knowledge helped me realize what and how these shoots should go and what the final print would look like in terms of the proportion of the images, the type of grain I would see on the print, and the clarity of the images.

I also went to galleries and museums to see the images in person so I could get a better sense of how the final print would need to look in order for me to get as close to the original as I could. For the final stage, I called the galleries that represent these master images and asked what size the image came in so that when I went to print, I knew the exact size of the original master print.

We printed the series on many different types of paper to match the types the photographers were using in their original prints. Details, details, details. Research, research, research. This is the only way this project could have had the success that it has had.

I used a Hasselblad along with the Nikon D800 and D810 and a 4×5 film camera for the Edward Curtis shot.

DPP: The Curtis shot of Native American Chief Three Horses does transport the viewer back in time.

SM: I have a lot of books by Curtis and, for years, have studied the amazing portraits of Native Americans he produced in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They’ve had a profound impact on my own portrait work. He was carrying a large-format camera and glass plates around on horseback, and photographing these chiefs and developing the glass plates probably right there on site. Given how delicate those glass plates were and the circumstances in which he had to work, I’m amazed by what he was able to accomplish.

At first, I thought about shooting the Chief Three Horses recreated portrait with glass plates, but we were trying to produce up to 10 shots a day. With all the makeup and styling going on, we decided to shoot most of the shots digitally. For the Curtis shot, we used 665 Polaroid film, which I felt would give me almost the exact look of an Edward Curtis piece, and then make minor adjustments in post to match the original Curtis photograph.

August Sander/ Bricklayer (1928), 2017
August Sander/ Bricklayer (1928), 2017

DPP: From a technical standpoint, what was the most difficult aspect to the shoots?

SM: The toughest part of the whole project was determining how each of the original shots were lit. A few, such as [Andy] Warhol’s self-portrait and the shot by Arthur Sasse of Albert Einstein in the back of a car, appeared to be done with direct flashes. But in the eyeball [of each subject] lay the secrets of the lighting that was used in each shot.

I didn’t go out and try to find the exact lights that were used, but with modern lighting and my very in-depth knowledge of lighting, I was able to recreate the same quality of light in each set with Profoto and some Speedotron lights. Some of the original images were done with continuous lighting, some were shot with natural outdoor lighting, some were natural light coming in through big banks of windows, some were strobes, some were hard lights and some were very soft lighting.

This is a project that in hindsight was just insane to take on. It’s one thing to be Bert Stern in the Hotel Bel-Air shooting Marilyn Monroe when you have Marilyn Monroe, but when your trying to recreate an image and you’re not Bert Stern and you don’t have Marilyn Monroe and instead you have John Malkovich, no matter how amazing he is, you have some work ahead of you.

DPP: How did you learn the craft of photography?

SM: I am a 100 percent self-taught photographer. I came from a poor family with no funds for art school. Love, desire, passion and a very big dream kept me going. I saw the work of Irving Penn when I was 16 years old. It was a defining moment. I knew right then and there that I wanted to be a photographer. To truly become a master at one’s craft, it is never an easy road. I dedicated myself down the same path year after year, never giving up, even through 18 years of being a single parent. I was determined to make it. I am a product of hard work, never believing in the naysayers, and following my dream.

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