Sandro Miller: Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters
Catherine Edelman Gallery
As I walked down the stairs into Catherine Edelman Gallery, to view the current exhibition by Sandro Miller, I was already smiling before I even hit the first landing. I am captivated by the few images that are facing the entrance; a vibrant Warhol and a feverish Serranno and I realize quickly that this is indeed a genuine homage to the masters. Miller has surpassed simply replicating some of his favorite works with a celebrity friend inserted as the subject, but has reinforced and reemphasized the enormous power of a single portrait. In doing so, he has also raised interesting questions about the relationship between photographer, subject and audience. And I’m not even inside the door.
Sandro Miller has been exquisitely photographing people for over thirty years, becoming interested in photography at the age of sixteen and devoting his life to creating expressive images ever since. Mostly self-taught, Miller has relied on books published by many of the great artists canonized in photographic history. Through their pictures, he has learned the art of composition, lighting, and portraiture. Much like his inspiration and mentor of sorts, Irving Penn, Miller uses the same techniques and sensitivity to the character to photograph celebrities and models in his professional projects, including extended endeavors with John Malkovich, a long time friend and cohort. First meeting in the late 1990s, the two are still collaborating in dramatic, humorous, and curious ways. So it is no surprise that when Miller decided to do a project honoring the men and women whose photographs helped shape his career, beginning with an homage piece to his favorite photographer Irving Penn, Malkovich instantly agreed to participate.
Both Miller and Malkovich are easily two of the best in their respective fields, but the project is only as captivating as it is because of the obvious trust and relationship between the two (a major key to any successful portrait). Given the extraordinary gifts of each, it is easy to understand how Malkovich became Miller’s muse and Miller became Malkovich’s photographer. You can feel that the two men are completely lost in the process and that’s why these images are so fascinating. Malkovich matches the wild abandon with which Miller has set the stage, and he embodies that same fervor by completely dissolving into character, fully giving over and losing himself to the personas.
Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters recreates the most iconic, beautiful, perplexing, and engaging images from the 20th century from such masters as Arbus, Avedon, Karsh, Lange, Leibovitz, Mapplethorpe, Penn, Shay, Stern, Warhol and many more – they’re all here. More than a thank you, Miller’s images reflect serious intentions, as they are distinctly not parodies of the originals. As much as Miller was asking so much of his colleague, he asked the same of himself – subjecting the full process to the same struggles and successes felt by the original photographers. Through months of extensive research and study of the original images, set construction, wardrobe and make-up rehearsals, and laborious set design, each image was meticulously crafted to be exactly identical to the originals.
Remarkably shot in just four, fifteen-hour days, there was little to no time for experimentation, it had to be right the first time. Reportedly, Malkovich got most of the final shots in just the first take, without even a sense of hesitation or whisper of naivety. One of the more elaborate sets was for Art Shay’s famous image, and notably one of his best, of Simone de Beauvoir, the French intellectual and feminist writer who, at the time, was dating Nelson Algren, 12 years her junior. She stands in the bathroom at the sink, her back to the camera, both arms raised as she fixes her hair in the mirror. She is not wearing a stitch of clothing except for a pair of high-heel slides. In Art Shay / Simone de Beauvoir (1950), Malkovich embraces de Beauvoir’s flirtatious and confident attitude, and although his size and physique are incorrect, he completely portrays her casual yet provocative stance on what appears to be an identically ratty bathroom mat.
Considered to be one the greatest American actors of the 21st century, Malkovich gives us his full range as he demonstrates his chameleon-like proclivity, morphing into the varied subjects of the series. He is, as Miller states, “the most brilliant, prolific person I know. His genius is unparalleled. I can suggest a mood or an idea and within moments, he literally morphs into the character right in front of my eyes. He is so trusting of my work and our process… I’m truly blessed to have him as my friend and collaborator.” Though the results are serious and engaging, the works are also wonderfully entertaining in their final presentation. In many of the photographs, given the painstaking attention paid to every detail and Malkovich’s remarkable abilities to transform his face, body and entire person into someone else – it is impossible to distinguish the original from the duplicate. Both Miller and Malkovich are simply that good. Which is really no surprise given their talents, but in some cases – it truly is extraordinary. Yousuf Karsh / Ernest Hemingway (1957) literally requires a double take. Malkovich convincingly becomes the famous writer, capturing his broad jawline and the seemingly invincible stature of a man cruelly battered by life. He richly embodies the author’s peculiarly shy and gentle qualities as noted by Karsh when he made the original.
What I find interesting is that Miller has assumed and exhibits so many of the qualities of the mentors he has replicated here. Whether intentional or simply as part of his education, he has been able to identify the specific characteristics that each photographer cultivated in the development of their individual styles and successfully implements them in his own approach to not only this project, but to the field. Known for his indelible rapport with his subjects, as much as Miller is, Bert Stern, also self-taught, was considered the original madman of photography. Bert Stern / Marilyn in Pink Roses (from The Last Session, 1962), depicts the spellbinding last sitting of Marilyn Monroe, who reportedly had to have a few martinis to “loosen up” for the shoot. Though an obvious challenge for Malkovich to transition into one of the most recognizable women in history, he does. It is one of the more obvious identifications of the actor; though you still need a minute to decipher it isn’t Monroe. Malkovich manages to depict her attitude and the raw sexuality that she was celebrated for. It is beyond fun and playful, it is cheeky and suggestive in the most captivating way.
Richard Avedon once wryly said, “My photographs don’t go below the surface. I have great faith in surfaces. A good one is full of clues.” In Richard Avedon / Ronald Fisher, Beekeeper, Davis, California, May 9 (1981), Miller successfully rivals Avedon’s confidence in the two-dimensional nature of photography by bending the rules to his stylistic and narrative purposes. He strategically registers the pose, attitude, and accessories (in this case bees) that make Avedon’s images so revelatory. Malkovich astonishingly surpasses the original in every intention – I fully believe he is the beekeeper.
Staying true to the ambitions of the project, Miller utilized minimal editing only to replicate the original grain of the images (he shot digitally). Otherwise, they were printed as they were photographed and framed to perfectly match the originals. With nearly three-dozen images in the series, and more in production, Miller exhibits an exceptional level of intensity and rigor in his quest.
In doing so, he has changed how we view these iconic images of noteworthy subjects. Similarly to how Arthur Sasse changed the way history looked at Einstein. By humanizing a man known chiefly known for his brilliance, this image is the reason Einstein’s name has become synonymous not only with "genius," but also with "wacky genius." Arthur Sasse / Albert Einstein Sticking Out His Tongue (1951) powerfully changes how we view John Malkovich, elevating him to the level of genius as well. One of the strongest images in the collection, Malkovich really flexes his performance muscles to not only capture the essence of the original but of the character at large.
It seems apt that Miller selected a work by Diane Arbus for this series – in her own words, her images were ripe with suggestion of an alternative person as a stand-in for her subjects. Arbus once said her pictures sought to capture “the space between who someone is and who they think they are.” Curiously depicted in her original image of twins from New Jersey, in Diane Arbus / Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey (1967), Malkovich assumes the role of both sisters – each with distinctive and obvious personalities. By far one of the most humorous images of the group, it still retains all the awkward and uncomfortable yet alluring qualities Arbus became legendary for.
Image after image, if there was any doubt to Malkovich’s unparalleled ability to morph into character; it certainly isn’t by the end of the exhibit. One of my favorites of the entire show is Victor Skrebneski / Bette Davis, Actor, 08 November (1971), acutely quiet yet starkly dramatic. Malkovich, cloaked in the richest of blacks, smokes in the exact posture as Davis – requisite wrinkles and makeup in place. It is spellbinding. Bette Davis, who famously said of her Skrebneski portrait, “I’m playing a movie star and doing it damn well—most would fall for it—but the focus of an artist, an artist who knows how to wield that unforgiving eye of the camera, has found me out.” Miller and Malkovich through this image, encapsulate the entire project in a single shot. As Skrebneski once said about his own work, “A picture is about seeing…whatever was recorded by the camera no longer exists.” Miller has given us renewed looks of his mentors’ visions, and in doing so; he has also, a second time, secured a special moment never to exist again.
Through Malkovich’s immense skill and Miller’s amazing photographic eye, Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters pays respect to photographic history through the genius of a photographer and his muse. And in the process, documents two masters in their own rights. Sandro Miller: Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters is open now through January 31, 2015. For more, visit www.edelmangallery.com