Writing an article’s introductory paragraph is usually pretty easy. You introduce the photographer, you describe his or hers style, and you write something about their field of photography. However, in the case of Michael Muller, it is far from easy. It is obvious that he is mostly famous for his blockbuster movie posters and celebrity portraits, but for balance and context, there is a lot more that need be said. So let us just take it from the beginning.
Michael’s love for photography started at a young age. When he was eleven years old, his family moved to Saudi Arabia, where his father would oversee the Bechtel Corporation’s massive construction of Jubail. Michael’s father, a passionate amateur photographer, bought him his very first camera – a yellow, waterproof Minolta Weathermatic.
“I first experienced the power of photography when I used my Minolta to take a picture of an image of a shark in National Geographic” Michael laughs. “I showed the picture to my friends, and I told them that I’d shot the image myself. They were amazed: oh, wow! No way!” Still amused, Michael goes on. “They just couldn’t believe I’d taken such an amazing image – which I hadn’t! Of course, I soon felt guilty for lying. Eventually I cracked up and told everybody the truth. But it definitely had an impact on me. I was beginning to appreciate the power of the medium, you know.”
A couple of years later, the Muller family returned to the States. It was 1985, when the snowboarding phenomenon started to explode, and the 15 year old Michael Muller was determined to capture the action in the slopes. A friend helped him finance one of the worlds’ first printed snowboard calendars, and not too long after that, Michael’s very first pay check landed on his doormat.
“Several of my early snowboard images were published in magazines and calendars and, so I was pretty much just a sophomore when I started shooting at a commercial level,” says Michael with a sense of irony in his voice. “Next I started shooting rock bands. This was before the internet, before everybody knew everything. I would just call the record label and ‘suggest’ that I was shooting for Rolling Stones or whatever magazine seemed important. I wasn’t exactly shooting for any paper, but I did get front row seats, from where I could take great pictures of the band.”
Michaels’ early professional journey traces a restless young photographer. He moved to Colorado to once again shoot snowboarding – this time, fulltime. He left Colorado and applied for Otis Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles, where his impressive portfolio gained him advanced placement. After one semester, Michael realized that he did not need a diploma to get the jobs he wanted. He left the school and started to focus on portrait photography instead.
“I had a huge benefit,” says Michael. “A lot of my friends were actors, like Leonardo DiCaprio, David Arquette, Balthazar Getty, Stephen Dorff and Drew Barrymore. They were somewhat known at the time, but not like they are today. Most importantly, they were friends. So, I was just shooting my friends, which was extremely comfortable and, as it turned out, it would give me an advantage down the road.”
So to sum it up, you’re pretty much self-taught?
“If I include a number of older professionals who gave me advice and a helping boost along the way, I’m completely self-taught. I didn’t use strobes or anything like that during my first 10-15 years of shooting. Partly because I couldn’t afford them, but also because I didn’t go to school or assist anyone who was using that equipment. I just wasn’t around light, you know. In retrospect, I think that was good. It taught me about framing, composition, directing and most importantly – finding really cool places to shoot images.”
You evidently managed without studio lights. How come you started using strobes?
“Well, there were some personal distractions in my life,” says Michael. “I stopped taking pictures for a couple of years…” He pauses for a while. “Let’s just say I took a little detour. In retrospect, it was probably for the best. Life was coming at me too fast. I wasn’t really appreciating it. In 2000, my father passed away. After that I started to get my life back on track. I moved back to northern California and started from scratch. One of my first assignments was a campaign for a clothing company that was really small at the time – Von Dutch. The owner of Von Dutch gave me the assignment immediately upon seeing my old portfolio with all the bands and now famous actors. That was my first major shoot with strobes – Profoto strobes. It was all new to me, so I stuck with only one light and a beauty dish. The campaign did really, really well. Suddenly, everybody wore those Von Dutch trucker hats. My phone started ringing, and I moved back to Los Angeles with a commitment to succeed.”
And you continued to work with studio light, I guess?
“Yes, I learned to shoot with light, one strobe at a time. I shot with my original Profoto 7-b pack and a beauty dish for about a year. Then I added a second Profoto pack, a grid and started shooting with two lights. A bit later I added another one and then another, until today, where I’ve done shoots with up to 80 packs.”
Has your background as a self-taught photographer in any way affected how you think and work today?
“Perhaps. I didn’t have any references at the beginning. I hadn’t assisted anyone or had the opportunity to learn from someone else. I was on my own. But I knew what I wanted. I didn’t want my work to look too stylized, but I wanted it to pop out from the page. I wanted it to look hyper real. On the other hand, I don’t think you really know what you like until you do it or you see it. If you completely know what you like, then you’re just copying someone else. If you strive to create a certain look, probably that look already exists. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t go to the magazine racks, and I didn’t read the coffee table books. I just went and played with lighting until I found something that I really liked.”
Today Michael Muller’s portfolio is as multifaceted and as colorfully dynamic as they come. Wildlife photography, documentary photography, sports photography, celebrity portraits and blockbuster movie posters – it is all there. But it is not only the motifs that come in all colors and shapes. The style and lighting is just as varied.
“That’s a conscious decision,” says Michael. “It’s based on two principles. First of all, I don’t want to get pigeonholed. Some photographers build a career on a certain look, but the problem with that is that if you are hired by a magazine or an ad agency, they expect you to do that look and nothing else. You’re stuck with it. I refuse to let that happen. Secondly, I really enjoy shooting different subjects. They each play off each other, and I think it keeps things interesting.”
Is it very different to shoot different motifs?
“Yes and no, finally, you’re creating images. It’s just the approach that is different.”
What about portraits? Is it different to shoot a celebrity, who’s accustomed to standing in front of the camera, compared to a ‘normal’ person, who doesn’t have that experience?
“Well, the main difference is that celebrities have a preconceived notion about themselves. They tend to raise barriers. They have a lot of protection, a lot of buffers. So you have to peel back those barriers to reveal the real person underneath. However, at the end of the day, everybody is pretty much the same, and everybody is more or less insecure about getting their picture taken.”
“Certainly. Celebrities, just like the rest of us, can be very insecure. They don’t like to have their picture taken. If you put a movie camera in front of them, their fine, there are always retakes. But the still camera? They distrust it. Understanding and respecting that is a part of why I’ve been pretty successful in that business. I work fast and I make them feel and look good. And they love it.
What’s your secret?
“I treat everybody with the same respect. I don’t change my attitude just because someone is famous. I respect their talent, but I treat them as a real person. We all breathe the same air and we all have the same sun, so let’s work together and make a great iconic picture together!”
Speaking of great pictures – which aspect of your work are you the most proud of?
“Right now, it’s the animals that are the most fufilling. I’m currently busy shooting sharks and polar bears for a TV show. You know, I’m doing something that’s never been done. Nobody’s ever brought studio quality lighting to the animals in their natural environment. At least not in this scale. It’s hard to explain, but when you see it, you’ll understand.
Exactly what is it that gives you fulfillment?
“The challenge. Bears and sharks and electricity in the water – it’s tough but satisfying. It’s amazing to be able to use all this new technology, to capture wildlife in a way that people have never experienced. I want a strong reaction from people. I want them to say: wow, no way! How did you do that?”
Just like your friends in Jubail did?
“Exactly. The last time I was out there shooting, I stood on the boat, and I thought and felt: this is what I was meant to do. For 25 years I’ve been using my gift for photography to sell products, rock bands and actors and whatever else. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I treasure my gift, and my movie posters bring people in through the door. But I want to use that same gift to make people think and care more about our planet. If they see an image of a shark, and if they think that it’s beautiful, then maybe, maybe will they think twice before eating shark fin soup again…”
So you still believe in the power of the medium?
Written by Fredrik Franzén
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