Q & A: In conversation with Greg Miller Stories

American fine art photographer, Greg Miller began his career over 20 years ago shooting assignments for magazines and newspapers on the streets of New York City. Whilst his style was forged capturing snippets of life in the city, much of his personal work since then has portrayed the slower pace of small town America. Drawn primarily to photographing strangers, he captures a beauty and sensitivity in everyday moments that may otherwise go unnoticed. This intrigue is present throughout all his bodies of work, encompassing a narrative documentary style that truly celebrates day-to-day life and the unique experiences of all of us.

Whilst primarily thriving off finding and documenting spontaneous moments, Greg explains that his photos are always very intentional and orchestrated. Working almost exclusively with an 8x10 camera has forced him to refine his process extensively; taking as much time as required to perfect each scene just as an artist might a painting. “At some point I told myself don’t click the shutter until it’s what I want, and my pictures improved exponentially.”

From the series 'Waiting For'

A note from Greg (March 17, 2020): Intrepid sent me these questions last year but I have been working on them between other commitments until now. Since then, the Covid-19 outbreak has completely transformed our world. Looking back, it feels like gatherings, street photography, photographing strangers might seem like a distant memory. Or large format photography might seem completely superfluous against the backdrop of fear for one’s own health, financial loss and shortages. Looking back over the history of photography (which is ultimately a tiny fraction of the history of the world), we can see far worse situations than this, and a use of photography that, if not to bring news and information to others, can serve to document, expose truths, absurdity and even offer humour in the face of tragedy and upheaval. I would say if you have a camera and film at your disposal, to use it to photograph what is immediately around you. Your home, your loved ones, and yourself. But having said that, I would like to be a voice of reassurance that it is OK to not go out and photograph strangers on the street. Be creative. How can you tell the story of this moment in history without endangering yourself and others? And yes, with a large format camera but if not, use any camera.

I am hopeful for a time when all of this is past us and we will once again walk the streets freely with the only remnant of this time being a fervent enthusiasm for hand washing. - Greg

From the series 'Morning Bus'

What do you think draws you to the scenes or people you choose to photograph?

Sometimes it’s the moment I see… Other times the people are extraordinary but the moment is not that great yet, so I will want to create a scene or wait for a scene to happen. But in the former, it is people that are engaged in something, and it can be as simple as someone looking at their nails or their beer. And then the environment is speaking as much as the person’s activity. I like to think of each element like it’s another person. The person is a person, obviously, but the environment is also a person, the light, the tree, the driveway, an animal. And then you begin to see each as independent personalities with needs. I can wait and look for the essence of each thing in the picture. It builds to a crescendo, and then it’s over. Everyone (and everything) goes back to being who/what they were before.

From the series 'Unto Dust'

Many readers will marvel at how you create the photos that you do on an 8x10 camera. How do you go about capturing such natural looking scenes on a camera requiring such a slow orchestrated process?

I think it can ‘look’ spontaneous. I look for moments that will look captured. But really my process is actually kind of long and not very spontaneous. My subjects have to wait for me to focus, I sometimes will wait for the sun to come out from behind a cloud. You just don’t see all that waiting in the picture. I think I am good at relaxing into very stressful situations. I learnt a long time ago that if I don’t do this whole series of steps correctly, get the light reading, compose, focus, etc., that the picture is basically going to suck. I would get film back and I would have all these pictures that sucked and I thought, why am I doing this. At some point I told myself don’t click the shutter until it’s what I want, and my pictures improved exponentially. Consequently I also saved a lot of money on film.

From the series 'Unto Dust'

With a majority of your subjects being strangers, do you ever feel nervous to ask someone if you can photograph them? How do you overcome any initial fear?

I always feel nervous. I have not really gotten over my fear of strangers. I think it is like public speaking or fear of flying. It might be with me forever. It’s sort of a battle between my fear of people and my desire to photograph them. I used to give myself a lot of grief for being nervous, like there was something wrong with me. I had always imagined the fear as being this external thing. At some point I realised that fear is actually a part of me and, in fact, I need it to know who to photograph. To me, the only people on the street that are interesting are the scary ones. The people that I don’t fear are not as interesting. I mean everyone is interesting in some way, but the people that make me think, “I can’t photograph that person...” That’s the person I should be photographing.

From the series 'Waiting For'

Would you say you feel more inspired to make work in a new place or in places that are familiar to you already?

This phenomenon of making ‘better’ pictures in a new or foreign place or the feeling of being inspired is fascinating to me. I find it also with new equipment. Sometimes a camera will make me feel that way. It’s a new toy. For me, I don’t like the making of good pictures to reside in the camera or in the place. In other words, I don’t want to have to buy a new camera, a plane ticket or get a visa to make good pictures. I have had amazing experiences photographing in foreign places but the newness of a place has also shut me down. Sometimes it can overwhelm me. So I try not to long for something I don’t have. Better to make the best pictures I can of what is right in front of me, sometimes that is a new place, but sometimes that is my own backyard. 

From the series 'Waiting For'

Do you think shooting 8x10 has helped you refine your style in a way that using a quicker to shoot film format or digital may have made harder?

The 8x10 camera forced me to begin talking to people. It forced me to deal with my fear of strangers and launched me into a career of talking to them. This whole process slowed down for me in a way that changed the pictures. I began visualising what I wanted my pictures to look like and my pictures began to be more intentional. I started making the pictures I really wanted to make as opposed to settling for the picture I felt like I had to accept. All of that ended up maybe developing into a ‘style’, but I don’t think a person needs an 8x10 camera to do that. It’s the intentionality I think is the common thread, not the camera. A person can still talk to people, visualise and have intention with a small camera. There is a leap of faith asking the world for what you want. It feels selfish but there is no point of clicking the shutter if what is in front of the camera isn’t what you want.

From the series 'Morning Bus'

How do your projects generally come together? Do you plan them long in advance or do they develop as a result of photos you have taken on random occasions?

It depends, but generally a project comes from a hunch that a single picture or a small group of pictures might work as a project. In my “Waiting For…” series, I had the idea to take pictures of a local drive-in movie theatre. I happened to live next door to a drive-in theatre at the time. There was only a short time that I could photograph, from when the drive-in opened, about 5pm, until the sun went down. All in all maybe 3 hours. And during this time people would be sitting in or around their cars bathed in magic light as the sun set around them. I had to get permission from the owner to photograph so I might have considered that a series before I took one picture, I can’t remember, but if I did that is rare. Anyway, the first pictures weren’t even the best pictures, but they were good enough to see the potential for more work. The conditions were right, basically. I think that is what a project needs to survive. It needs to be organically feasible, not like crossing a desert every time you go out, but local to you at that moment, relatively affordable and the people you are photographing have some interest in the work coming into fruition. To me the initial idea of a series is as important as the conditions for me to work on it long term. A great idea is useless if you can’t work on it regularly. So the question I often ask myself is not, “what would make a great project?” but “what thing near me (that I care deeply about) is begging to be photographed?”

From the series 'Morning Bus'

Your series ‘Morning Bus’ is the epitome of documenting scenes most may overlook, but instead you capture a powerful moment of childhood innocence and independence. What inspired you to begin the project and when did you realise how impactful it could be?

I now live in Connecticut. We moved here about 10 years ago. 6 years ago, we were all stunned by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. One didn’t have to live in Connecticut to be affected by that shooting in which 20 children were killed. But for me, it hit very close to home as our own daughter was the same age of many of the victims. I couldn’t get the image out of my mind of parents saying goodbye to their daughters and sons in the driveway and then never seeing them again. I was frustrated by the debate in the US over whether there should be laws restricting gun sales or ownership. I wanted to make photographs that spoke to the powerlessness I felt as a parent, without it being about guns. I don’t care about guns, I care about childhood and innocence lost. After the shooting we all went back to our lives, but saying goodbye to my daughter in the driveway changed for me. I had the idea to photograph my own daughter in the driveway. Then I photographed a friend's son, then a child of another friend. I began making appointments with parents to photograph their kids. I kind of knew right away that I was on to something. 

From the series 'Morning Bus'

Your portraiture always feel incredibly sensitive no matter the subject, what advice would you give photographers wanting to shoot a similar style of portraiture, in order to respect subjects?

My mother taught me empathy by telling me that everyone was going through something. No matter who they are, rich or poor, they are probably struggling on some level. When I come upon a scene or a person, I assume that person is in the midst of some conflict. I will never know, and I don’t need to know to make a good picture, but I think that influences how I see people and how I photograph them. 

Having said that, when I make a picture, my camera is not the easiest camera with which to be photographed. I’m pretty fast by large format standards, but still people have to wait for me to focus and often more than once. People tell me it feels like they are at the dentist or getting a chest X Ray. So I can’t say it feels very tender at the moment of making the picture. I do have great patience though. Sometimes a picture will fall apart in the making of it. That’s hard but my subjects are rarely a guarantee. These are not professional models, they are regular people that didn’t know they were going to be photographed today (or ever), so I can’t get upset if it doesn’t work out. Me being a photographer is about me. As a group, photographers can be egomaniacs. Some photographers show up thinking everything revolves around them and when the whole thing collapses, they get mad at everyone as if it’s someone else's fault they’re not good photographers. That’s nuts. For me, it’s all my responsibility, the light, time of day, my subjects listening to me, not listening to me. I have to take it all on because this is my venture, not theirs or anyone else's. 

But even still, when a picture doesn’t work out, I can still be heartbroken. When I teach large format, I tell my students that the dark cloth is so you can hide behind the camera and cry.

From the series 'Unto Dust'

You can see more of Greg's work on his website or Instagram.

The End.