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.