When Kent Miller first moved to New York in the late 1980’s, he started off as a drummer playing in several different bands. Now, more than 25 years later, Kent is an established freelance photographer who specializes in fashion, music and product photography, with clients that include some of the worlds largest companies, such as L’Oréal and Macy’s. What was it that got him onto such a different career path? What keeps him passionate enough to continue? And where does he see himself in the future? I had the rare opportunity to visit Kent in his Manhattan-based studio on W 35th Street (near the Empire State Building) and ask him these questions, along with a few others.
After knocking on the studio door I was greeted by Kent’s intern, Austin Hummel, who ushered me inside. Kent, who was sitting by his desk buried in work, got up to greet me as well. I stepped in to take a closer look at the vicinity; it’s a long, rectangular space, carrying all kinds of photographic and digital equipment. Kent put his work aside for a moment to sit down with me to talk about the industry, previous projects and life outside the studio walls.
Where did you grow up?
And that’s where you went to school?
Yeah. I’m pretty much self-taught though, as far as photography is concerned. I took some classes at SVA and at other places on specific things that I wanted to know (like lighting, composition, etc.), but that’s as far as I went.
When you first moved to New York in the late 80’s, you’ve said that you started out as a drummer in a band?
Yep, that’s how this whole madness started. That’s how I got to New York.
And then you started photographing the music scene?
Well, when you’re playing in bands you can go on stage at any time from seven o’ clock in the evening until three in the morning, so depending on when we were going on we had a whole lot of time to kill. During that time I had to have something to do, so I started taking pictures of friends’ bands that were playing before or after me. That turned into a sort of “weekly adventure,” doing the photographing and just trying different things. It was all film so it was a lot of trial and error, but I got pretty good at it. And it was a great way to pass the time between gigs instead of just sitting around.
I did that for a while until I was finally encouraged one night to take a closer look at some of the photographs I had taken of a band; there was this woman there writing an article and she liked my pictures. They ran them in the magazine she was working for and that started the whole process.
So that was your first “paid gig”?
That was the first paid one. I sold three pictures for maybe forty dollars a piece. It was great! It was all slide-film – everybody wanted slide-film at that time – and it was a lot of work. It was crazy, but it was a good time and a good learning experience. Plus, I was already there, so it just made it more fun.
What was it that later made you get into fashion and product photography?
You needed more money?
No, I needed more knowledge, more things to do. Music was awesome, but once the digital revolution came there was very little money left in music. As with a lot of this (as many people know) you don’t really do it for the money. I needed to transition into the more technical aspects of photography to learn more about the craft, so I branched out to all these other fields and started assisting other photographers.
I really enjoyed working in the studio. Most of the people there were doing either fashion or product work, and I liked it because it was very intricate and difficult to get the little things to be perfect; it was all done on 4 x 5 and 8 x 10 film, and we worked for hours to get it right – on one piece of film!
When you were (and are) shooting a subject, at what point did you feel like you had captured that “perfect” image?
When the art director said so. [laugh] I mean, a lot of it really is that. When it fit the layout for the art director and everybody signed off on it and we were all happy, then we would send all of the film out – but we wouldn’t touch the set. The whole set remained exactly like it was until the film was back and it was approved and finished. And then we tore it down. Because of this, the studios had to be bigger; we could have four or five cameras all set up at once. If we received a new job then we’d just set up a whole other set in another part of the studio. And then we’d sit there and wait until it was finished. It was crazy, but really fun. It’s not like now, where once you get the shot you see it on the computer screen and then it’s done, you’ve got it. Everything is there. You’re now building pictures, as opposed to just taking them. It’s a different way of thinking and going through the process, and the end result is still pretty good. But that’s not something I do. I’m pretty basic when it comes to that.
What’s your favorite subject to shoot? Is it still the music scene?
I still love photographing musicians, obviously, but it’s more about the people. Whether or not they’re musicians or other artists, corporate entities or general business people – it’s still a person. There’s still something behind the mask, something going on that they don’t easily show. Something that you, in one way or another, need to pull out of them. It’s a difficult process sometimes, but I always think it’s fun to meet and photograph new people.
You’ve done a few photo-shoots with model and tattoo artist Azarja van der Veen. How is it working with her?
I’ve worked with Azarja for a bunch of years now on a whole lot of different shoots. She’s awesome. My wife jokes that she’s my “tattoo girlfriend” (she’s not my real girlfriend!). She’s a sweetheart; she knows what to do, what she wants and how to get there. And she’s right there for you. She’s willing to take a risk and try things, and if things don’t work then they don’t work. [Kent points at the calendar on the wall behind Austin] That particular calendar was her idea. She wanted to do it, so we just started brainstorming, and then over the course of three days that whole thing came together. It was fun.
Has she done any of your tattoos?
No. I only have one, but she didn’t do it. I keep trying to get there, but she’s a very “in-demand” girl. She’s booked weeks in advance usually.
[In the middle of our conversation, a man stepped into the studio to briefly discuss a previous project with Kent and to collect some papers. After the man left I asked Kent about the project, which turned out to be a collaboration with a fashion styling class.]
It’s like two or three times a year at LIM on East 53rd. The students work on a particular style/theme with a model that I photograph; that’s what they get to take home from the shoot at the end (besides from all their training, of course!). That way they get a few pieces for their portfolios. The students are great; they’re really creative. It’s a summer class, so they come in from all around the world and they’re all different ages. To style a model, they work together as a team and each team works on a different concept. It’s fun to see because it always turns out pretty cool. They make something out of nothing, which is what a good stylist should do.
Have you ever had any working experience that was exceptionally bad; where things just didn’t turn out the way you wanted them to?
There are many times where that has happened. There were times in the beginning of digital where I flipped the on-switch on the camera and it just wouldn’t turn on. Just dead…stopped right there. Cause you know, it’s a machine. And that happened right in the middle of a job; I got to the shoot, went to turn on the camera and start working and– [Kent snaps his fingers] dead. Luckily, we’re in Manhattan. You can get another camera pretty quickly. So I just sent somebody out to grab another camera from one of the rental places. In the beginning, I would always take one or two film cameras with me when we were shooting, just in case. Things are much better now, though I still always take at least two, and sometimes three, cameras with me. It’s pretty hard to tell the client that you can’t take any pictures because your camera won’t turn on – it’s a little embarrassing. But, like I said, here in Manhattan, it takes half an hour to have somebody run out and grab another camera out of a rental house and ‘boom!’, we’re good to go. If you were in the middle of South Dakota, that wouldn’t be the case. You’d be in trouble.
You recently became a father. Has that impacted your work in any significant way?
Yes, it’s amazing…and I’m still a bit of a workaholic. But yes, it’s made me want to be home a lot more. I spend most mornings sitting on the floor playing with my daughter. She’s nine months old now, and like everyone says: “It goes so fast” – it goes so fast! You blink and already nine months have gone by. And it’s because we’re constantly working towards the next thing.
But you’re still working quite a lot?
Oh yeah, still going strong. We take it where we can get it.
Where would you see yourself in 10, or let’s say 12 years from now? Any dreams? Or is it more day-by-day?
Most of my life is day-by-day, but we’ve been trying to establish more of a plan for marketing and moving towards the future a little bit. Right now we do a lot of work on smaller jobs, so the goal is instead to get bigger jobs and do fewer of those; higher production value jobs that really satisfies. Not that the little ones don’t, but they take a lot more energy and running around.
Of course, everyone on the planet is going to say they want fewer and bigger jobs; you’re working hard, and you want to work just as hard, but you’d like to do it for a larger client. I can tell you, with each step you go up the ladder, the next rung is higher. You can make a bunch of leaps in one year and then the next rung is going to be a lot further away.
But you learn to jump higher. And I own my own company so I don’t ever stop jumping. I go home from here (now I have Agnes to give me a big hug and spend some time with) and before I go to bed I’m back at the computer again. And that’s 11 o’clock at night. It doesn’t stop.
Maybe you don’t want it to stop?
Oh, I’d like it to stop. I’d like it to stop when I go on vacation and I’d like it to stop on the weekend – but when it’s yours, it doesn’t stop. You’re always thinking about what the next thing is and how to get there and what is financially going to make sense. Something’s always going to be going on in your head.
The world of a freelancer, I suppose.
Exactly, it’s the world of a freelancer. It has its perks, believe me, but it’s just as cool as it is not-cool.
Lastly, what are your personal feelings about the whole Instagram-trend, and the fact that everybody nowadays is trying their best to be a ‘‘photographer’’?
Oh, everybody on the planet is a photographer right now. It has kind of diminished the value of photography.
But people still seek out professional photographers.
Absolutely. There are still complicated things that a phone or a point-and-shoot camera can’t do. And thank God that they can’t, because when they figure out how to do those things…well, then I’ll be sitting on a couch somewhere watching everyone else do stuff.
The industry is currently changing a lot. Like I was talking before about how we used to use film; he [Kent points at Austin] would never know this. And there are a lot of people who would never have any reason to know it. You wouldn’t necessarily know what dip-and-dunk processing is nowadays because there’s really no reason to know what it is. I know maybe I am a bit of a curmudgeon, but I like to get the whole image in one shot like we used to. [laugh] I don’t know, it’s part of who I am I suppose. This is what I love to do and what I want to do. If there was anything I could do over again, I would have just learned to do it sooner. I mean, I waited until I was already in New York and in my twenties before I even picked up a camera. But, as we know, you can’t change history. Unfortunately. [laugh]
After our interview, Kent also took the time to show me some of his current projects. Apart from his newly redesigned website (which was just launched), he is also working on a number of personal reportage projects that focus on people with different hobbies and professions. So far, these include stories about curious individuals such as a woodworker making handcrafted tea boxes out of several kinds of wood (only two boxes a year!) and a 68 year-old man who started a vineyard all by himself in order to produce his own wine. “I like that kind of thing,” Kent tells me, “people who do things, as opposed to machines.” By recording conversations, filming, photographing and putting it all together, he tells me that he has learned a lot of new skills along the way and that these projects are a kind of “outlet” to keep him creatively satisfied. He loves his work, but personal projects are just as an important part of staying motivated as anything else.
To see more of Kent Miller’s unique photography and to keep yourself updated on what is happening with his current projects, be sure to follow the links below.”
Altpick, Website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter
Interview By: Andreas von Buddenbrock
Andreas is currently working as an intern at Altpick.com, conducting interviews and writing articles. When he’s not working as an intern, he’s finishing up his Bachelor degree in illustration at the various campuses of Savannah College of Art and Design (Hong Kong, Savannah and Atlanta) while freelancing as an illustrator.