Interviewed by Jacob Pritchard
Edited by Jules Ameel
Miller Mobley started his career just a few years ago. While still in college, and in a time when the editorial landscape was changing rapidly, Mobley became a sought after magazine photographer in the South. He became so busy he was failing photography in school because he was spending all his time on assignments
A decade earlier, Mobley’s technical skills in lighting and color might have only been learned through many years of assisting. But Mobley has taken advantage of the digital age of photography to learn technical skills through books, YouTube videos, and on set experience. Miller progressed quickly from a photographer who didn’t know how to trigger a strobe to living in New York City shooting A-list celebrities.
During our conversation, Mobley said that while the technical aspects of photography may now be easier to learn, photographers must stand out even more through the vision behind their work, and smart business and marketing sense.
Mobley and I talked about his approach to photography and his career. We also discussed his first shoot for The Hollywood Reporter, which helped to establish his relationship as a regular contributor to the magazine.
Pritchard: You didn’t work as an assistant, but learned in part through watching behind-the-scenes videos on YouTube. Someone who started their career just five years earlier didn’t have that kind of access to information. Do you have perspective on how having more access to information has changed what you do and how your career is shaping?
Mobley: That’s such a good point to make. I went to the University of Alabama and there is a photography program, but it’s just part of the studio art program. So you major in studio art and you do painting, drawing, sculpting, and photography. But I actually ended up dropping out of school in my last year and a half. My business had kind of taken off and I was getting paid work. At one point, I think I was failing photography.
I learned some of the basics at UA, especially about terminology and printing photographs and what looks good. As far as lighting goes, learning how to market yourself as a photographer, planning shoots, production, the difference in an editorial or advertising shoot, all that kind of stuff was purely learned from reading books, experience, and watching videos on YouTube.
That was kind of my school, me going out and just shooting and learning from a lot of mistakes. And I invested in a small amount of equipment. I bought Profoto equipment because I would go online and see that Annie Leibovitz was using it. So I said, “Okay, I need to buy this.” It was just three or four years ago that I didn’t even know how to trigger a strobe.
So having said all that, I feel like today photography is just so much more accessible than it was a few years ago. You know, 10 or 15 years ago you couldn’t just take a picture. You had to know how to develop it. You had to know how to print it. You had to know how to light it. Now you really need to separate yourself. I guess the trick now is to figure out a way to stand out. I feel like getting a camera and taking a picture and making it look good is not as hard, and I feel like more people can do it. So the trick is to figure out how are you going to do it and stand out.
Pritchard: When you think of what makes you stand out, have you personally defined that for yourself?
Mobley: I feel like it’s evolving all the time, and I don’t know if I’m there yet. I think something that definitely helps is that I’m young. I’m young and I’m hungry. Maybe even being from the South helps a little bit too, that there is maybe a little more soulfulness to my portraits. When I was in college I would skip photography class and drive hours away and just go to some rural town and take portraits of random strangers.
I don’t know if I stand out yet, or if I’m still trying to find that. One thing that I’m really big on technically is lighting and color. I feel like if there was anything it would be something in that realm along with how my subjects look and feel, and their facial expression and things like that. But I feel like I’m too young to have something that makes me stand out right now, to be honest.
Pritchard: Let’s talk about the featured image that you shot for the Hollywood Reporter. Can you give us some background on that shoot?
Mobley: It was very, very difficult scheduling these two people, for some reason. I was initially only going to get five minutes with them. I ended up getting 15 or 20 minutes, and we weren’t even going to get any setup time or anything. I was going to have to just walk in, start shooting, and figure it out right there in the studio. But we found a little place on the rooftop terrace at 30 Rock, and we had an hour or two to set up.
Pritchard: What was the process like in terms of negotiating that additional setup time?
Mobley: For me to be super comfortable I need two to three hours setup time, and I didn’t want to walk in there and just do a quick portrait. So we negotiated: instead of shooting in-studio, let’s shoot outside where we can have more time to set up.
My photography requires a good bit of lighting most of the time: equipment, heavy stands, sandbags and all that. That time is really precious to me. Those two or three hours that I get to really nail everything down.
Before I even got into the shoot I had three pages of notes and drawings written out. I do that for every shoot. Especially these shoots with people who don’t have much time, because you never know when the time might even get cut short. When someone says 30 minutes they might mean 15 minutes. I like to always have every shot drawn out, and then leave room in between for things to just happen. For example, there is another shot where he’s flipping me off. I didn’t draw that out.
Pritchard: Right, that makes sense. That was more about his personality.
Mobley: Yeah, you’ve got to leave room for things like that. This shot [the featured image] was drawn out. I scouted it out the day before and really mapped out what I wanted to do and that is something that is so valuable, just drawing out a plan before the shoot. I can’t tell you how valuable that has been with these celebrities that I’ve been photographing lately. It just really gets my mind in the right place. And then I’ll write a few things to talk about with the subject. I researched Joe and I knew that he loves Alabama Football. I’m from Tuscaloosa, where the university is, so we had that to talk about.
As soon as I brought that up he was so warm to the fact that we were photographing him. His time went away, and he was just ready to hang out and talk Alabama Football. That was perfect. It wasn’t like a photo shoot with some random person anymore. It became a photoshoot with somebody he had something in common with.
With all my shoots I try to find common points with my subjects so that they aren’t just thinking about when it’s going to be over.
Pritchard: A few years into your career you moved from Alabama to New York City. What was the point where you knew it was time to move?”
Mobley: I was shooting lots of personal work in Alabama and I knew where I wanted to be. I had a vision. I kind of saw myself at a different level and I knew the way to get there for me was to move to New York. I feel like once you are competing with the best it’s only going to make you better and I felt like New York was the place for me to move.
I’d always had that at the back of my head, even when I was a year into photography. I’ve always loved the city, so I just wanted to be there regardless. I started shooting my personal work and two of the images that I shot got into American Photography. This was the first time I got in the book, which was three or four years ago.
Pritchard: I’ve seen them. Those were the Mormon pictures.
Mobley: Yeah, the Mormon missionaries. I just emailed mormon.org and I said, “I want to photograph missionaries,” and I had four of them show up to my doorstep.
So, the two images ended up getting into this book and I didn’t even know what it was. I had just started photography maybe a year and a half ago or two years ago. And I decided to go to New York to go to this party [The AI-AP award party]. We did some meetings, and a magazine editor said “You need to meet this person named Marcel. He is an agent up here and he could probably help you.”
Marcel is the owner of Redux Pictures. We kind of started the relationship there. He decided to put me on a kind of half-time roster, where I would be based in the South and just pick up work down there. For a year that’s what I did. They weren’t glamorous stories or anything, but you know, if there was some CEO that needed to be shot, or some random story about a town, or something like that, I would do it.
I think I just showed them I was really hungry. I told Marcel that I was going to move to New York, and he said, “If you move to New York, I’m probably not going to be able to represent you. It’s just really saturated up here with photographers.” I said, “Okay, I’m moving up there anyways,” because I knew that’s where I wanted to be.
I got up there and it had been a few months. I had a meeting with Marcel and I think he had just seen some drive in me and just really believed in me and said, “We are going to make you a full time New York photographer. I’ll put you on that roster and see what happens.”
So, that was awesome. And it solidified things and made me feel like, “okay I’m supposed to be in New York right now.” Now February will be two years that I’ve been here, and it’s just been amazing.
My career has totally changed and now I’m more respected. I have a bigger portfolio and a portfolio with recognizable people. I’m getting the shoots that I want and every month, it just keeps getting better. But, I’m working harder than I have ever worked before, with marketing my work, meeting people, doing test shoots, and doing personal work. So, it’s a way different ballgame, but it’s really starting to pay off.
Pritchard Looking at your fairly recent “Re-enactors” series, what kind of a role does shooting personal work play into that marketing for you?
Mobley: It’s actually a really big role, and one thing that I need to improve on. I think it’s always good for a client to see you producing your own stuff, and it shows your vision. You never know, that could spark an idea for an art director for a new advertising campaign or something.
Pritchard: One other thing that’s unique about your approach is that your wife is working with you. Would it be fair to call her your manager?
Mobley: I would say she is 100% the manager. She does many different things. She travels with me on a lot of shoots, produces small photo shoots, helps with some of the marketing, helps with a lot of the bookkeeping, overseeing our expenses and paying our vendors, stuff like that. She’s kind of just a do-it-all person. More than that, it’s really good to have her around just so I don’t get insane or drive myself crazy, because I tend to do that a lot.
We have a really great balance. Also, one of her most important roles—I don’t even know how to classify this—but clients just really love her. She is great to have on set. She pushes me to get the better shot, but also I think she is just really pleasant to have on set. Clients really like her and her opinion, and she’ll talk to the clients some of the time so I can focus on what I’m doing. There are not many people that have that.. So that really brings a unique aspect to our business.
Pritchard: You’ve already touched on this in a few ways, but just to bring it all together, what do you see in the future for you and your career in photography?
Mobley: Well, as far as bigger picture things, my goal—and I don’t know how to say this without sounding cheesy—in the eyes of the photo editors and art buyers, I want to be regarded as a great portrait photographer. I want to be known as, “We hire Miller and we know that we’ll get a great portrait of the president or a musician or an actor.”
I don’t see me doing anything else except portraits for the rest of my life. I have really specific goals. Like, I want to be shooting movie posters in the next year or so. I’d like to do posters for HBO and ShowTime and Warner Brothers, and clients like that. I want to be a great portrait photographer. That’s pretty much it.