Morgan Miller: Homage To The Masters Of Fashion Photography Part 1

A brilliant young New York based photographer, Morgan Miller grew up in a home steeped in photography and frequented by great photographers, but he became a professional photographer quite by accident thanks to his raw talent and an extraordinary stroke of good luck. Combining the organizational and analytical skills he acquired as a business major with his lifelong passion for the great fashion and commercial photographs of the past, Miller conceived of the idea of recreating images that capture the spirit of the iconic fashion images of the ‘20s through the ‘90s, but adding 21st century innovations to revision them and impart a contemporary sensibility—kind of riffing on the classics. Here is the remarkable story of a project that became a mission with literally a cast of thousands.

Q: For the S-Studio Event happening in conjunction with PhotoPlus Expo, you’re the featured photographer. What is the goal behind the series that’s being shown at the S-Studio?

A: In terms of this project, the idea was to take iconic fashion images of the past and revisit them, retaining certain key elements such as composition, feeling, and lighting but making them modern, fresh, and new, while paying respect to the originals. We had to bring something else to it because we couldn’t have shot it just as it was 10, 20, or 60 years ago; it would’ve been wrong to even try. The way we all look at things also changes, and your view of what is classic or beautiful changes but certain elements are immortal and will always be beautiful. Creating these images was a fun project and challenging. The images that were recreated were chosen and reviewed as a joint effort with Stephane Houy Towner who was previously the fashion historian at the Met. We had many meetings about the concept of doing it because we were potentially skating on very thin ice.

Q: In other words, if you do a project like this, you have to do it well?

A: Yes. Stephane and I had meetings after meetings. We conducted research expeditions; we pored over all kinds of books and archives to select the first 10 or 12 images and determine which photographers would be selected. We compiled extensive research of photographers and their work, and collections of images. We’d go online and email back and forth. “What about this one; what about that one?” There were certain standouts of course and images that were clearly iconic images that needed to be included.

Q: How many images did you recreate?

A: We did ten.

Q: What camera and equipment did you use for this project?

A: The Leica S-System is my favorite camera, and the Lens combo is my preferred lens right now. In fact all of the Leica S2 lenses are amazing. I believe that lighting is almost everything and capturing that light is crucial, and I find the Leica to be amazing at that. For lighting equipment I currently use all Profoto lighting equipment (with thanks, to Cliff Hausner of the Mac Group), everything from Strobes to the HMI which I love, and everything in between; I’m especially a fan of large Parabolic Umbrellas.

Q: Can you tell us more about your approach to recreating “The Mainbocher Corset” by Horst?

A: I wanted to shoot this with water in the frame or near water because the countertop and the way the ribbon sits there remind me of water. It almost looks like a stream, and the shadow in the original and in the marble also remind me of water. How it would be on water if it were someone’s hand. So this one I did with all natural lighting at the Thompson Hotel LES at the pool. We put it together; Ashley Pruitt the Stylist put her in a great corset. We didn’t want it to be the exact scene; we just wanted to capture that feeling and emotion so you would recognize if you knew the shot, but it would also be as exciting even if you didn’t. I was glad I was able to catch this kind of light. I absolutely just love the shot—it came out really beautiful with great contrast and edge lighting.

Q: They both look like strong women too.

A: Yes, there is a lot of strength and grace at the same time, which is perfect because we found the right model. Julianna Mueller, who is with Women Model Management, is Brazilian and has a wonderful presence.

Q: How long of a period did the shooting for this project last?

A: We did all of the shots for this project in two very long days and it was pretty intense. Over the course of those two days, we shot for at total of 36 hours. One day we did 22 hours straight. I think there were five models involved, multiple agencies, two separate crews of hair and make up, four locations, stylists, assistants and a surprisingly large production crew. It would’ve been impossible without Production Director, Severine Manuel. It was like producing a small movie to make this happen.

Q: Can you tell us more about this image with the prominent circle in the background?

A: This is another Horst picture. The concept was taken from a Chanel ad I found in an out of print soft covered Horst book. I’ve always loved the image and thought it was so beautiful. We really wanted to run with this one too and go for a level of sublime beauty that you feel as soon as you see the image, that it quietly speaks.

For this image we didn’t want it to be black and white. We wanted it to be color. We wanted it to register as really soft, beautiful and lightly saturated to capture the mood. We wanted the colors to sort of create the mood of the image with everything else. I’m so happy that’s how it came out. I really love it. When you do something like this it’s an homage to these people who were and are such amazing artists and the iconic images they created. You must do it out of respect and reverence. And a lot of thought and love has to go into this project.

Q: Is this a project you wanted to do for a while and this was the opportunity to jump on it?

A: I’ve been thinking about this for years and the S2 is one of the things that made it possible—this was all done with the S2. For example here’s a shot inspired by an image of Mila Jovovich by Peter Lindbergh that was so strong and inspiring to us. We were able to catch a powerful moment with the Leica. This was lit with just a single HMI light. The lighting was inspired by old fashioned Hollywood George Hurell feeling of lighting, but it looks really modern, really sharp and piercing. I just love the way this portrait came out.

Q: If you are doing something based on the best of the best of the best—best photographers, best subjects, best models, best of everything—and you want to create something out of respect to these people, then it has to be so close to that level or on that level. You want to be right there, to push yourself, your team and your equipment.

A: Yes, without question or hesitation. This is a shot of Jean Shrimpton with her hair flowing. So I thought it would be fun to shoot something beautiful like that and I really wanted to add texture to it. In the original she just has this pretty face, and a lot of lovely softness, and the hair has a flowing blur. I wanted to do it with palpable texture and detail. If you look at the way the hair is here, we really had to do an amazing amount of work to get that look—there were hair dryers, fans, foam cores of various sizes, cardboard of different thicknesses and sizes and sometimes all blowing and moving at once from all different angles. We were sending people all over the place weaving and swirling in different areas in the studio for her hair to move different directions at once. It was a ridiculous site in the making, but we got the look we wanted. We wanted to tie in the feeling of three dimensional texture, so we picked an outfit that had great depth and texture, in its layers.

Q: Do you often look at photos and think “Oh this is what I would change or do with it?”

A: Yes. Sometimes, and other times you think this is wonderful and can’t be any better, but to me that can open up a challenge. When you see something, anything you love you think, “Oh, where can this concept go?” For me, I want to do something that people will look at and say, “That’s amazing. I love it and want to see it again and again!” It’s almost like it has a presence and tells a story or conveys an emotion all its own. Photography is not for lazy people, it is painting with light, it is math, physics and art all melded together. And you have a static image—a movie told in one frame. When you’re shooting a film, you have 24 frames per second to tell your story. It moves and flows and continues to tell its story with time allotted to it. I have one frame that sits forever still to tell my entire story, to convey an emotional response, to convey a particular emotional response with just one image, to get it right as it is critically viewed.

Q: Since you are recreating extremely iconic images that many people have been inspired by and influenced by, are you concerned about the response?

A: The response is always an important part of any image, there is a lot of care and respect shown to the original artists here, and we didn’t just copy them. This was about the emotion and embodiment of the image and really created out of respect to the originals and the artists who made them. If someone does have a negative response to it, that’s fine—you’re entitled to your own opinions. But then I don’t think they really get it.

Q: Did you find that shooting in New York City provided a kind of a constructive constraint that forced your creativity?

A: I’m based here in New York. I’m a New York person, I love it here. It’s a big part of my life, and I felt that this town added a fun element to some of these images. There’s so much here. If you take things at face value you can find almost anything in New York. If you take the time to look and dig deeper, to actually pick up a stone and see what’s underneath it, there’s a whole universe in and around New York City. And if you have the right project and people find it interesting, they really come out to be part of it. The number of people that it took to make this happen, that really are passionate about it, and the amazing amount of hours involved to make this happen is kind of a New York thing in itself. I mean could I have done it somewhere else? Possibly. But I’m perfectly happy right here. New York is just an amazing place with great locations, like Helen Yarmak’s showroom, that was previously Hugh Heffner’s Penthouse overlooking Central Park.

Q: Were there any images that you felt you just had to shoot?

A: Yes, I feel strongly about all of them of course. There are different things we all felt really strongly about, but we all concur that those images that meant the most to us are those that told a story, and spoke in a timeless way, and communicated across generations. So our basic concept worked out pretty well. Here’s one that was actually shot on a rooftop in Paris.

Q: It looks like a diving board.

A: I always thought it was a diving board too, but Stephane told me, “It’s not a diving board. It’s a rooftop on the Champs-Élysées.” I thought it was really interesting, and it blew my mind that it was shot on a rooftop.

Q: This recreation looks different from the rest because the faces are looking towards the camera unlike George Hoyingen-Heune’s image where they are looking away. What’s the approach behind your image?

A: We shot a series with the faces going both ways. We hit a different angle and decided that we wanted to tell a slightly different story. So if you see where their faces are in my image, it’s actually more of a reverse of the Paris rooftop; their faces are turned the other way. We tried several variations of pose and we knew that the original was shot on a rooftop and not on a beach, so we kept it on a rooftop. So we changed it around but the story is still based on the original. That was the whole idea, and it came out with just the right amount of romance.

Q: You mentioned that a ton of people were part of this project. Do you know offhand how many models your team went through in casting?

A: We had stacks of cards. Stacks! They filled a big table, and we had requested a fair amount of specific models too. We saw dozens, to find the right people was an immense amount of work in itself. And the production crew alone was quite large.

It seemed like an easy thing at first, and I didn’t realize how big a project it was going to be. But if the final product isn’t up to standard, you’ve got nothing. You have to really hit a home run with every single shot, and it takes a great team. It might be my name on the bottom of the image, but this is not just my image. There are a lot of hands and hearts that went into making these images and they are all important parts of this and deserve credit. I have a whole list of everybody involved to be shown.

Q: Interestingly, you never thought you’d end up as a photographer for a career. What made you decide to go pro?

A: I was with a group of friends including photographer Peter Beard. Philip Ernst, another fried there, insisted on showing Peter some photos I had taken while hiking Mayan ruins in the Yucatan. After looking at the images, Peter declared I was to be a photographer and suggested I quit anything else I was doing at the time. He followed up the next day by having someone call me while he was at a shoot and asked me to bring a camera. I studied business in college, and I have found that having a business degree really helps in being a photographer in today’s world. Life takes strange and unexpected turns; now it’s hard to imagine being anything other than a photographer. I owe Peter a debt of gratitude; he helped me find where I was supposed to be.

Q: Photography was a part of your childhood, right?

A: I have no formal education in photography, but I was around the world of photography since I was a small child. My father was a photographer and photography dealer. My stepmother, Colleen Kenyon, ran the Center for Photography at Woodstock. So from as early as I can remember we had famous photographers and people in the art industry as guests in our house. I often watched what they did and was able to speak with amazing people growing up. So I always saw photography, but not initially as the profession for me personally. It really wasn’t until I started looking into it more deeply at Peter’s repeated suggestions that I began to consider photography as a career.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: I’ve always known the name and have been familiar with the brand. I remember reading about the S2 before it came out and seeing a pre-production model at the Photo Expo at the Javits Center. I could tell that no camera like it had ever been made before and that it had many unique features. When I held it and played with it at the show I was honestly thinking, “I want to work with this camera, this is what I want to use.” It’s great sometimes how the universe works; I never would have guessed that I would now be working with this amazing camera system.

Q: You mentioned that photography is painting with light. What else is in your approach to your work?

A: I believe in endless and relentless drive, tenacity and unwavering focus, to live and breathe your art. You need to know where you are going to end up, to have that goal clear so you don’t get lost or sidetracked on the path. You don’t necessarily need to know how you’re going to get there, you just need to be clear on where you’re going to end up and what you need to achieve.

The most important qualities a photographer needs to have are the vision for line, shape, shadow, and a commitment to team building and leadership. It may be the photographer’s name that’s ultimately attached to the image, but it’s really all of the people involved that make it special and iconic. The better the team, the better the final product can be! I have had the great luck and fortune to work with and continue to work with very talented but also kind and motivated people. I truly believe this makes all of the difference in the world and in the finished product. Talent, good energy, positivity, productivity and a lack of drama are great things to find in the people you choose to surround yourself and create with.

Thank you for your time, Morgan!

- Leica Internet Team

Morgan is the featured photographer for Leica’s S Launch Party and S-Studio Event taking place on October 25 and October 26 at Milk Studios. He will attend both studio event days from 1:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. shooting the designs of Peter Som and offering insights into his photographic process.

To connect with Morgan, visit his website, Twitter and Facebook page.