It’s pushing 11pm in Brisbane, Australia and here I am sitting and staring at my computer screen, attempting to weave together a series of words that will leave a vivid impression of the role that Michael Miller has played in capturing the explosion of the West Coast Hip Hop scene. After all it’s what his legacy deserves.
I was eight years old when Michael Miller photographed his first rapper; Arabian Prince in Los Angeles. At that time my closest exposure to hip hop music was Salt-n-Pepa’s ‘Push It’ via the compilation record; ‘88 The Winners’.
It wasn’t until my early to mid teens that I would come into contact with Michael’s photographs while starting to discover and collect the music of Cypress Hill, Snoop Doggy Dogg, 2pac and House of Pain. It was even later, as a grown-ass man in my thirties, that I would finally discover the man behind these iconic photographs was Michael Miller.
In the meantime, Miller was busy building an “expansive portfolio that includes over 300 major record covers, the most iconic supermodels of the ’90s and some of the biggest names in rap and jazz”.
With his book ‘West Coast Hip Hop | A History In Pictures’ hot off the press and an exhibition opening at Known Gallery in Los Angeles this Saturday night, I managed to pin Michael down for a quick interview before he jumped on a plane to San Francisco. –Luke Shirlaw.
You grew up in Santa Monica, Los Angeles around surfing/ skateboarding culture and were an avid listener of AM1580 KDAY, the radio station that brought prominence to the West Coast Hip Hop scene. Yet your introduction to photography was shooting fashion in Paris and Spain. It wasn’t until your return to LA in 1988 that you started to work with hip hop artists, seemingly completing a cycle that began during your teenage years. Now with the steady decline of the music business, the cycle of life has you back working on fashion and advertising. How much of this journey has been intentional, or incidental?
I think so much of it was by chance. I was lucky meeting certain people and being in the right place at the right time. I have always been a people person so I was always out meeting people and really open to new things. Optimism can take you a long way in life.
During those earlier days of your career in Europe, you were experimenting with your own version of cross-processing films – these techniques helping to create the aesthetic of your early music photographs. How has the advent of digital photography transformed your current work?
It hasn’t and I’m not a fan but it’s very useful for checking the lighting etc. So now it’s used for the clients to look at the computer screen. It’s great for that and shooting locations. It has its place.
What are your thoughts on today’s photography environment? A camera is in the pocket of just about every kid in America.
I was kind of bummed about that… My 16 year old – at the age of 14 – her friends were taking photos better than you would see in the magazines and a couple of them used my same camera…
But now I’m enjoying my iPhone and all its apps, just like a teenager.
In the promo video for your book, Paul Stuart says of you; “His style has had such an impact on people, but they don’t know his name”. Admittedly, I’m very familiar with your images of Tupac, Cypress Hill, House of Pain, Coolio, Warren G and Pantera because I grew up listening to those records, studying the images on the album covers. However, I’m not as familiar with you. Why has it taken this long for your work to be compiled into a book when these images essentially helped define a movement?
I sort of became a recluse without realizing that I had become a bit isolated. When you have kids you stop doing a lot of things, like going to clubs etc. My free time was filled with their sports and all the activities. I became very involved, which is a good thing. It probably didn’t help that my name is so common because you couldn’t find me on Google.
I’m sure you’d prefer to save most of the stories about the hip hop community for people to read in your book, so I’ll ask about Nick Cave. I’ve heard he is notorious for hating photographers? How was your experience with Nick, both on a personal level and when it came to shooting pictures of him?
Usually I bonded with artists that were notoriously difficult to work with.
I collected albums of old jazz, soul, anything obscure. That seemed to be an icebreaker; at least it was with Nick and Pantera. But he still wouldn’t take off his glasses.
You were in the studio when Dr Dre recorded The Chronic – an album that lyrically caused a stir due to its “frightening” blend of “inner-city street gang scenarios”. Dre later stated, “it’s all entertainment”. Did you personally ever have any real exposure to gang lifestyle?
Going to Santa Monica High was different than some of my friend’s high schools. We didn’t have bussing so it was very multi-racial. I’d see my friends from some of the local gangs at the pier, movie theatres, just everywhere in Santa Monica. That was in the late ’70s. It seemed like everyone got along.
Tupac was already famous when you first photographed him in 1994, can you tell us something about your experience with him that is not documented in your book?
He had an interesting personality. He was really energetic and charismatic. Those traits probably helped elevate his celebrity. My wife dressed him and she said he had no colour limitations to the clothing; he almost wore anything unless it didn’t fit. Which shows a very confident person.
How do you feel about the state of West Coast Hip Hop today?
We need some new artists. It seems like The Dirty South took over. I can’t think of an artist recently that came out of the West Coast. I am sure there are a few; I should probably do my research.
Earlier influences of yours include: Peter Lindbergh, Paolo Roversi and Javier Vallhonrat. Which photographers inspire you today?
Sam Haskins, Paolo Roversi , Javier Vallhonrat and Annie Leibovitz’s early band photos for Rolling Stone were amazing.
The images in your book are 90% album covers, yet for the show at Known Gallery a majority have never been shown to the public before. Why was it important to show unseen work at Known?
[The artist/ label] chose a couple [of photos] for the album package and I would always move on to the next job and didn’t go back and look through the shoot to see if there were other images.
The partnership between hip hop and graffiti was popularised in the early 80s thanks to films from the East Coast such as Style Wars and Beat Street. Were you exposed to graffiti through your involvement in West Coast hip-hop?
A family of Italian boys moved in next door to me and started school with me. They were from NYC and they dressed different, [they were] graffiti [artists] and break-dancers. We listened to the same music but this was 1979/80 and they dressed different there. Graffiti was different on the West Coast. The kid my age was a really good artist. It was big, bold, and colourful. I was so into it.
As a photographer, the relationship and interaction you have with your subjects is vital. Pep Williams said you’re someone who can “kick it with the homies” which I’m sure is why you were so successful shooting hip hop heads. Given the diversity of clients you’ve had, how do you approach different subjects? Does your approach differ between shooting; Ice Cube, Angelina Jolie, Pantera or a young unknown skater?
I just act with instinct so when you’re with new people it was trying to find something in common, in our conversations. Usually it was successful.
No doubt with this diversity of subjects, you’re dealing with many different personality types and egos, so things aren’t always gonna run smoothly. Can you share any of the horror stories with us?
Honestly it’s hard for me to think of one situation where the artist did anything dramatic. Usually it was someone in my crew, assistant, make-up artist etc. that pissed me off. In general every artist came to a shoot like it was a root canal at the dentist. So it was my job to distract and convince them that it was going to be quick and easy. Then I would proceed to say, “just one more set up”, about ten more times throughout the day.
Where is your favourite place on this earth?
The Amalfi Coast of Italy, although there is no surf, it’s incredibly beautiful with amazing food. Those two combined are rare.
Where would you like to travel to next, somewhere you haven’t been before?
Bali. I’ve been wanting to go for a long time.
Thanks very much for your time Michael; let’s finish up lightly with a couple of quick personal questions:
What did you have for breakfast?
I’m in to juicing and whatever my wife cooks me.
Would you punch a ghost?
I have yet to be convinced there are ghosts and I’ve lived in some very old houses.
What’s the most recently added album to your music collection?
Tomorrow I am going to San Francisco to shoot for Ferrari magazine.
After that the projects I am working on are not set in stone yet so I don’t want to jinx them.
Thanks again and all the best for your opening on Saturday.
Thank you, this was fun!
Michael Miller’s ‘West Coast Hip Hop | A History in Pictures‘ opens this Saturday 4th February at Known Gallery Los Angeles. The book of the same name is available now through Over The Edge Books.
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