Photo by Jana Mobley
Very honored to be able to have this platform today. Great thanks to Scott and Brad for giving me the opportunity.
It was about 6 years ago that one of my good friend’s dad loaned me his Nikon 35mm film camera. I had decided that I was going to major in Studio Art at The University of Alabama. One of the required classes for that specific major was a black and white darkroom photography. I can remember like it was yesterday; learning to expose film properly, develop it with chemicals, and then print in the darkroom. This had not been my original plan. Not at all.
When I was 15 my step father gave me a video camera for Christmas. That camera really changed the way I saw things. I was always making videos of friends and family. It might have been that I was trying to recreate a scene in a movie or I was just filming my friends doing highschool type of stuff. Nonetheless, I really became attached to the motion camera. Because of my interest in motion and cameras I started watching as many movies as I could and studying the camera moves, the composition, the blocking, the lighting, colors, etc. At a friend’s recommendation, I watched the film, “American Beauty” directed by Sam Mendes and DP’d by Conrad Hall.
That movie had one of the greatest impacts on me as far as drama and lighting go. It really opened me up to what the possibilities of filmmaking could really be. From that point on, I decided that I wanted to be a feature film cinematographer. So I of course started to apply to all the great schools of cinematography. I was pretty naive at the time. I was an 18 year old kid from Alabama who barely passed high school. Who was I kidding thinking that I was going to get into USC. But I gave it a shot anyway.
Well, a few months later I opened the mail and to my disappointment I could not get into any of the schools that I thought would be the best for my “career.”
So I ended up going to the school in my hometown’s backyard, The University of Alabama. Unfortunately, there was no cinematography or film program being offered at the time at UofA. That’s where we come back to my story about borrowing the 35mm Nikon. Because I could not study cinematography, I decided the next best thing would be photography. So once again I gave it a shot.
I soon fell in love with photography so much that I decided I should make it my career path. One of my teachers shared with me a book by photographer, Richard Avedon, called In the American West. It was a book of portraits that Avedon took over a period of several years every summer out west. He traveled with his assistants by car through the west and photographed complete strangers that piqued his interest. After seeing Avedon’s book it really changed everything for me as far as photography goes.
His portraits had this drama, authenticity, and power to them that really tugged at my heart. They moved me in a way that nothing else did at the time. That’s when I realized how powerful a single photograph could be. Before that I had no objective with my camera. I was a young 20 year old kid shooting everything from flowers, to buildings, to railroad tracks. I was just a guy with a camera that did not have a voice or vision. But after seeing Avedon’s book I became literally obsessed with portraiture.
At this point I had no idea how to exactly make a career out of photography, but it didn’t bother me. All I wanted to do was photograph the people that I would encounter. I started driving hours outside of my hometown to rural southern towns. I would walk up to complete strangers and ask to take their portrait. At first it was scary asking someone you didn’t know if you could make their portrait. Most people did not understand, but usually always said yes. I ended up shooting lots of people and making a true foundation for my portfolio. I was never being paid to create any of this work. I really had a true sense of commitment and passion to be constantly making portraits.
After a few years, I started to think about how I was going to turn this into a career. I started showing the work that I had created to magazines and advertising agencies around Alabama. I did a lot of studying and reading on the internet about what kind of people actually hire photographers. Before I knew it, people started hiring me for jobs. It was nothing too glamorous, but I was having the time of my life actually getting paid every once in a while to take pictures of people. It was almost like I was so naive at the beginning of my career, not knowing exactly what to do and showing work after I had only been shooting for a couple of years that it worked in my favor.
Fast forward 4 years later, and a lot has happened. I got married, tooks lots of pictures, showed lots of pictures, hustled all over the south trying to meet people, got an agent, hustled more, took more pictures, got a few breaks in Alabama shooting some big ad campaigns, left it all and moved to New York, started over again, hustled even more, took even more more pictures, and now I’ve been living in New York for two and a half years still shooting.
Through all these years I’ve learned a few things that I thought I would share today that have helped me in the photography industry.Hopefully not to disappoint, but there are no lighting tips involved, nothing about lenses and cameras, or the latest gear.
This is probably one of my greatest strengths. It has helped me build the career that I’ve had so far and has led to a lot of amazing opportunities. Without persistence I don’t think I would be a photographer right now. When it comes to getting hired in photography a lot of this business is about relationships + talent. You have to have talent, but you also have to be good at getting to know the right people. I’ve always been very persistent in going after new clients. I have lists pinned to my wall near my computer that have my “dream” clients listed. I’m always looking at that list reminding myself of who to stay in touch with and who to be showing new work to. There are some people on that list that have never responded to one of my efforts, but I don’t stop trying. However, it is important to find a personal balance of being persistent without being too pushy or annoying. I’ve made a lot of work that was never seen or never appreciated, but I’ve continued to constantly produce new work and refine my skills.
Knowing what I want to make photographs of is really important to me. I’ve always felt an attraction to making pictures of people. That’s what I’ve focused on ever since I fell in love with portraiture. I really try to hone my craft by always making portraits and pushing myself technically and creatively. There are sometimes where I feel that I get into a rut from a creative standpoint. I sometimes go into my default way of photographing, which basically means that I resort to what feels comfortable. That can be a trap. It’s always good to get out of your comfort zone and try something new – usually that’s when your best work is created. I decided a couple of years ago that I wanted to be known for something in photography. In a sense, I wanted to become a master at something. I’m not implying that I’m in any way shape or form a “true master” at photography, I just simply strive to be one. My focus is making portraits and always trying to improve the way I work. I would much rather be great at one thing in photography, than be mediocre at a few.
3.) Show your work
Life’s too short to not give a go at something you love. Once photography became my passion, I have never stopped trying to make it my sole career. I would go to meet potential clients while I was still in college. I hardly knew anything about photography, but I knew that I wanted to make a living from it because of how much I loved it. Most people I hear from are always waiting to show their work when they think it’s perfect. That was not the case for me. I started early – I got out there and showed it to anyone that would give me the time – I still do. Anytime I’m traveling on assignment, I might stay in a city for another day or so and make meetings with agencies and magazines. Once I had built a successful career in Alabama, I left it all to start all over in New York. I knew what kind of photography I wanted to do and I knew that I needed to be in a place like New York to make it happen. From the moment I moved to the city I hit the subways and went all over the city lugging my portfolio. I still make an effort every few months to make more rounds of meetings. The point is that you can’t wait, you just have to get out there and show your work.
These three points have really been a foundation for the success of my career thus far. Without them I really don’t think I would be anywhere. As you know, there is obviously more to my work than these three principles. I think to be successful in the photography industry you have to find a way to stand out. Which is much easier said than done. I still don’t feel like I’m there yet, but I’m really enjoying the process of finding that path. Hope you enjoyed the post and maybe you can take something away from it.
You can see more of Miller’s work at MillerMobley.com, and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.