Whether it’s American bikers, Steppenwolf actors, Cuban athletes or Spanish bullfighters, Chicago photographer Sandro unlocks something essential about his subject. The depth of hues in his black-and-white portraits, draw you into the humanity of his subjects—a bald girl with an unflinching gaze, a skinny kid in Havana wearing boxing gloves that seem giant, a wrinkled woman with a cigar, a diver poised between heaven and water. They sing with life and defiant beauty.
Twenty-seven years, 30 countries, an open heart, a seeking eye and undiminished enthusiasm for work and adventure are the hallmarks of Sandro’s award-winning career with work for clients like Nike, Adidas, American Express, Pony, Coca-Cola, Ambassador Scotch and the U.S. Army.
Sandro Miller was born in 1958 in the Chicago suburb of Elgin, Illinois. His father was killed in an automobile accident when he was four. His mother, an Italian immigrant with a grammar school education, raised him and his brother and sister alone. Looking at his background, there is little clue that it might produce an artist. Despite the lack of aesthetic stimulation at home, by the age of fifteen Sandro knew photography would be his career.
“I was about sixteen when I discovered the portraiture of [Richard] Avedon and Irving Penn, which probably influenced every photographer since the 1970s.
“My feelings of what happened to me as a child growing up, all that stuff built up in me. I wanted to somehow be able to creatively work it out of my system and I think that photography became my outlet,” he explains.
“I was a big purchaser of magazines, and I’ve always been a huge purchaser of books. My whole education in photography comes from the thousand-plus photography books that I own. I’d buy books of August Sander, Clifford Coffin, Erwin Blumenfeld, Herbert List…I’d just study these books; I’d dissect the photographs,” Sandro remembers.
David Deahl, Chicago’s top photographer when Sandro entered the field in 1980, took him on as his first assistant. “David was an absolutely meticulous, fabulous tabletop shooter. His lighting was spectacular and everything was so refined,” says Sandro. “Every bit of detail, everything in the shot had a reason for being there. I took what David did with product photography and I transformed it into photographing people.
“That’s how I got my start and built a strong book full of portraits and started selling my stuff,” he adds.
“I started out doing portraiture, probably twenty years ago. I was traveling all over the world shooting major CEOs for Fortune 500 companies for annual reports. I was on the road 200 days a year photographing portraits of executives. I absolutely enjoyed it, because here is a kid who is basically a hippie and having to deal with people who are running billion-dollar companies,” Sandro says.
“It was interesting because you had to be a little bit of a chameleon. You had to change your look, your attitude, to make these men and women feel very comfortable and safe with you. You’re only given maybe five minutes of their time.”
Whatever the shot, Sandro pulls together the best team. He is very detail-oriented about apparel and accessories and conducts intensive research. “I love the research,” he admits. “Between the stylists I use and the great in-house producer that I have, we’re on the computer researching eras all the time. Or I’ll go back and reference my book collection.”
His Italian heritage inspired a series of portraits published in the book Sandro Figure E Ritratti that was also shown at an exhibition in Verona, Italy, at Scavi Scaligeri International Centre of Photography. He has had a dozen exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad.
“We love him. Sandro is just great,” say Frederic Raillard and Farid Mokart, presidents of Marcel, a new Publicis-owned shop in Paris, France. “He’s smart and fast. He’s got a great eye and a strong sense of style. We appreciate his collaborative approach. He makes each process really easy.” In their former roles as creative directors at San Francisco’s Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, they worked with Sandro on the award-winning Pony shoe account.
Sandro likes to have a bit of time to show his work to his subjects to help them feel at ease. And he enjoys exploring different sides of a person’s nature. He was cautioned that actor John Malkovich might not warm to the idea of wearing devil horns. Turns out Malkovich loved the idea and the result appears delightfully unstaged.
“You don’t need to direct them very much,” he says of actors, “but just maybe go to a place yourself, whether it be crying or shouting or exasperation, so they understand that you’re very open to getting something wonderful from them. They see that you really understand, that you’re looking for emotion. Theater people are really the most wonderful people to photograph,” he concludes. Sandro has worked with Chicago ensemble theater troupe Steppenwolf (founded by Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Jeff Perry and Terry Kinney) for the last five years. “There are not many shoots that I’ve done with Steppenwolf [where] I haven’t gone through every single emotion because they bring so much out of me,” he claims. “They’ve let the guard down and let it all pour out.”
He doesn’t pose his subjects. “I actually act with them,” Sandro explains. “Together we just start moving. I’m not looking to get a kind of set-up staged portrait shot. I’m really working on getting something that is just of the moment. It’s almost like you’re dancing with them.”
He cites Albert Watson, Nadav Kander and David LaChapelle among modern photographers whose work he admires. “Nadav is one of my contemporaries I really look up to,” he says, admitting that they occasionally go up against each other for assignments. “What we do is bring our talent and all the knowledge that we have in photography. I don’t really have a set style. I’m a master of lighting. I can light a person a thousand different ways with hundreds of different types of lights. That’s what I bring to each job that I do. I’ll do tests and I’ll play with different types of lights. I’ll actually send them off to the art directors or the creative directors to show them ‘this is what I’d like to bring to this campaign.’”
He has garnered attention and won awards over the years for his beautifully-produced self-promotion pieces like the over-size Cuba, full-bleed black-and-white and color pages full of portraits of Cubans young and old, each capturing the beauty and decay that commingle in that land. In September 2001, Sandro photographed 90 of Cuba’s top athletes, including many Olympic champions, and members of the National Cuban Ballet.
American Bikers: Photographs distills Sandro’s art into a vehicle wherein denizens of society’s margins gaze out at their invisible audience in a surprisingly vulnerable manner. In 1995, Tina Brown ran an eight-page photo essay in the New Yorker from the biker series, only the second time a photo essay had appeared in the magazine’s august pages. (Avedon’s American West series was the first.)
Prosper Keating, in the book’s introduction, compared Sandro’s black-and-white photography to that of his artistic predecessors “…Matthew Brady and Edward Curtis…”
Other photographic book projects include I Can’t Accept Not Trying: Michael Jordan on the Pursuit of Excellence, a motivational book written by the basketball star (with Mark Vancil), illustrated with Sandro’s photographs continuing his collaboration with Jordan that began while shooting Nike commercials.
Sandro lives above his 5,000-square foot studio, in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood in a former garage with curved wooden arches, wood floors and brick trim. Family is a big part of his life. He has an 11-year-old son, Nathan, with whom he has a wonderful father-son relationship and a 22-year-old daughter, Natalia, who he raised from infancy as a single parent. Although he diligently researches all assignments, he’s not likely to be found in front of a television set, except perhaps to watch a DVD of The Sopranos. “When I really take time for myself, I’m going to be watching foreign films, or indie films,” he says. He has shot some pro-bono commercials and admits he would like to make documentaries. “So many of my book projects are really documentations of a culture.
“I love people. I love all people. I feel very compassionate toward people who’ve had lives that are a little bit less fortunate than others. I gravitate more to those people; people who are real survivors. A lot of my projects are [based] around survivors, whether they’re a young boxer trying to get out of some shit-hole part of the world—to move on and get a better life—or the people I’m shooting for The Naked Truth, who are all survivors.” With portraiture, as with so many things in life, trust is an important component. “They feel that I will show them in a beautiful light,” he says of his subjects. And indeed, it is about the light, but so much more too. Soul shine is what Sandro calls it. ca