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Art: A Different Perspective

World-class commercial photographer Sandro has higher ambitions.



Dance for Life Exhibition: Photography by Sandro

WHEN Wed 7/25, 10 AM to 5:30 PM; Thu 7/26, 10 AM to 10 PM (reception at 6); Fri 7/27, 10 AM to 5:30 PM

WHERE Alan Koppel Gallery, 210 W. Chicago


INFO 312-640-0730

MORE Sandro Miller will attend the reception. Sales of limited-edition posters and prints benefit Dance for Life.

When Michael Jordan walked into Sandro Miller's studio in 1994, the photographer had to scrap his usual methods for putting his subjects at ease: the basketball star was in the middle of filming a TV commercial and there was no time to share a cup of coffee, show Jordan his work, or touch his hand and promise, "We're going to have a lot of fun today." "He could only give me three and a half minutes," Miller recalls. But in less time than it takes to boil an egg, he shot 72 images of Jordan experiencing a wide span of emotions. The results of that whirlwind shoot have appeared in Nike ads and on the covers of magazines. Some also illustrate Jordan's 1994 book, I Can't Accept Not Trying.

"He was screaming, crying, laughing. His father had just passed away and we went there," Miller says. "It was my greatest directorial feat, and an amazing collaboration between two people who were pushing each other to the limit."

One of Chicago's top commercial photographers, Miller has also begun to develop a reputation in recent years as a serious artist. This past year Catherine Edelman handpicked ten of his photos for the Chicago Project, an online gallery she created to introduce local photographers to a wider audience, and this week he'll have his first solo gallery show in Chicago.

Miller, who grew up in Elgin, was expected to go into the family business building homes. But as a teen in the mid-70s he walked into a drugstore and bought a magazine that changed his life. He's long since forgotten what it was about the cover of American Photo that caught his eye--"There was probably a beautiful girl on the cover, scantily clad," he says--but inside was a series of portraits by Irving Penn from the late 50s and early 60s. "They were striking," Miller says. "Powerful. Bigger than life. I remember the incredible use of light and shadow--I'd never seen people portrayed like that before."

It was an artistic epiphany. Photography gave him a direction and a purpose--and "a reason to get up in the morning," he says.

Miller sought out more work by Penn and other photographers and used the money he made flipping patties at Mr. Burger to buy books that "moved my senses." "I would dissect them. I would look at them for hours, trying to figure out where the light was coming from and what made a photograph great," he says.

In 1976, when he was 17, Miller bought a used Nikon F and experimented on convenient subjects--abandoned trucks and farmland--before trying his hand at portraiture.

He quit junior college after one year and following a brief stint as a suburban photographer's assistant wormed his way into David Deahl's studio, promising, he recalls, to do whatever was needed--even to clean the photographer's bathroom. Over two and a half years as Deahl's assistant, Miller became comfortable with the technical aspects of photography, and it wasn't long before he was working on his own portfolio, recruiting blues musicians like Buddy Guy and Junior Wells to sit for him in exchange for free prints. "I was reaching for something extraordinary," he says. "Whether it was the joys of playing or the hardships of their pasts, I wanted to bring out emotion." He lit the photos in a way that maximized fine detail. "I wanted the viewer to see the lines in their faces, the wrinkles in their fingers, every pore, hair, eyelash," he says. "The little details tell the story."

Miller dropped his last name professionally in 1993 at the suggestion of a designer friend who thought it might create a mystique that would give him an edge in a competitive industry. "I truly am a down-home Chicago guy, very much the guy next door," Miller says. But he was also ambitious and wanted to compete with "big names like Annie Leibovitz and Richard Avedon." A little mystique, he figured, couldn't hurt.

Today Miller's long list of clients reads like a who's who of corporate America, including Nike, Coca-Cola, American Express, and Cadillac. Nikon has enlisted him to shoot its ads. Dove has hired him for the second generation of its "real women" campaign. Work comes to him. Earlier this year he stopped using an agent.

"He's prodigiously talented," says Jonathan Hoffman, who was vice chairman of Leo Burnett in Chicago from 2002 to 2005 and is now president of Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis. Hoffman hired Miller to shoot Allstate's "The Right Hands Make All the Difference" campaign, for which he photographed athletes' hands holding the equipment that made them famous--Bonnie Blair lifting a skate, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice touching a football, players on the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team raising a stick. Hoffman says he believes those images "transcended advertising" and rose to the level of fine art.

Before he'd even met Miller, Hoffman says, he had a photocopy of one of his portraits on his office wall. The image was of a shirtless, tattooed, long-haired biker raising a middle finger adorned with a skull ring. It was the only shot Miller got of the man. As he was directing his subject in the studio, Miller says, the biker spontaneously made the gesture and said, "If you don't hurry up, this is going up your fucking ass."

"I twitched, my finger hit the shutter, and we were done," says Miller. "I didn't want to find out if he was joking."

Miller's commercial success allows him to do volunteer projects as well, including educational work on crystal meth, child abuse, and domestic violence. For the past three years he's been taking photos to promote Dance for Life, an annual performance by the city's major dance companies to raise funds for AIDS charities and members of the dance community who are living with life-threatening illnesses. "I don't have time to build houses for HUD or Katrina or tsunami victims," Miller says. "If I wasn't so jammed with work, I would. But here in my studio, I can create work that helps people."

His success also gives him the luxury of working on his own art--about half his time. For a six-year stretch starting in 1998, Miller says, he moved at a "frantic shooting pace" on personal projects--"I was possessed by shooting, day and night"--and didn't slow down long enough to organize the material. Two years ago, realizing that "all this great work was sitting on the shelf," he started assembling it into books. Now he's looking for publishers.

For one project called Matador, he traveled around Spain for a month with Joselito, whom he describes as the "Michael Jordan of bullfighting." For a book on boxers, Blood Brothers, he traveled to seven countries over three years. During his second visit to Cuba in 2001, an Olympic official invited him to return to photograph the country's past and present Olympic athletes. Miller says the Cuban government couldn't afford to pay him so he sought out sponsors back in the U.S. "We went to cigarette companies, airline companies--no one would touch it," Miller says. "So I went back on my own, completely funded through my commercial work. I closed down my studio here for a month, took a crew of two people, and spent probably close to $50,000."

While in Cuba he also photographed people on the street, trying to capture the pain and desperation of poverty. "There's a message there," he says. "Communism isn't working." It's a message that the Bush administration no doubt would endorse, but when Miller sought official permission for his visits, he says, "the U.S. government said absolutely not." After being rejected twice, he stopped asking.

Miller returned to the studio for other book projects. He shot one called Atropa with a 1950s Polaroid camera that gave him the antique look he was after. His subjects, all nudes, look like weathered sculptures--partly a result of his distressing the negatives, processing them for days rather than minutes.

Two other projects, Nudes on Plexi and Massa, focus on naked bodies or parts of naked bodies pressed against Plexiglas. Miller shot his subjects--muscular dancers as well as average-size and obese people--from beneath an eight-foot-high, inch-thick Plexiglas platform. "I would usually have to go to the massage therapist afterward," he says, rubbing his neck. "It was terrible."

The results were worth the strain. "It was just a perspective I don't think anyone had seen before, from underneath the dancer," he says. With his overweight models, he appreciated the way the body became an almost unrecognizable landscape.

"I worked with people who feel somewhat ashamed of their naked body," Miller explains, "and so the challenge there was first to get them to trust me, to come into the studio, to listen to what my project was all about, and then to get them to disrobe and feel comfortable about being naked. A lot of these people were doing therapeutic work on themselves and this was the end of the process. Often when they came down from the Plexiglas there were hugs and cheers. I get emotional with my subjects. It's a tremendous honor when someone shows up and gives something of themselves."

That Miller was able to gain the trust of his subjects for the project is no surprise to people who've worked with him. "There's a serenity in the way he shoots," says Hoffman. "Because of the way he is, people feel very open around him." Actor John Malkovich, whom he's photographed repeatedly over the last eight years, once told an interviewer that Miller was one of the few photographers he enjoyed working with.

Miller's had solo shows in Daytona, Florida; Verona, Italy; and Munich, Germany; but this week's exhibition of his photos of ballet dancers at the Alan Koppel Gallery, benefiting Dance for Life, will be his first in Chicago. "He doesn't necessarily take photos of the whole body," says Harriet Ross, the former associate artistic director of the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre who helped found Dance for Life 16 years ago. "He sees in one brief place in the body something that seems to reveal everything. He seems to understand the body and what a dancer is trying to do with the body. He completely gets that and continues to tell the story with his photography. Everybody wants to be photographed by the man."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): John Malkovic, 2005; Robert "Gangster" West, Sturgis, South Dakota, 1991; dancer on Plexiglas, 2001; Eric Wasboro, Crumlin Gym, Dublin, Ireland, 2001.

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