Graham Miller is a photographic artist and co-founder of FotoFreo a biennial international festival of photography based in Fremantle, Western Australia. His work has been exhibited internationally and throughout Australia, including Pingyao International Festival of Photography China, Recontres Photographie Internationale de Niort France, Kaunas Photo Lithuania, F/Stop Festival Leipzig Germany, Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney, the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Photography Gallery of Western Australia.
“I’m interested in the ambiguity of images. The way that all photographs have elements of fabrication and truth making.”
Q: A lot of your influences seem to come from a rather specific cultural language, in particular that of American cinema and literature. For example, in your series Suburban Splendour there is a rather American mood to the staging of the images. In American Photographs you convey a strong sense of what the experience of the quintessential American ‘road trip’ might look like. And accordingly, you pay homage to a specific kind of photographic tradition and narrative. Can you discuss some of the reasons you are attracted to what might be read as an American visual language?
My love of cinema started when I was very young. I was exposed to a lot of American film and television as a kid growing up in Hong Kong in the 1970’s. Starsky and Hutch, Baretta and The Night Stalker were favourite TV shows for my brother and I. Dad had a whole library of films on VHS. War movies, westerns, gangster movies, car chase movies, comedies – we’d watch them all, over and over.
Much later in my late 20’s, I studied photography and film at University and became aware of the American photographic tradition. The photographs of Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore and Nan Goldin were a revelation. It was also about that time that I met my partner, Nicole, and she introduced me to American fiction by authors like Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Tobias Wolf. I loved the directness of the writing. It was uncomplicated and unpretentious, and it deals with human experience, relationships and everyday frustrations that feel genuine and powerful.
These American influences are not something that I’m overly conscious of, but they have informed an important part in the way that I see images and recognise the “photographic” when I look at the world. Last year when I visited the Southwest of the United States, I was astounded how familiar the landscape seemed. Even though I had never been to many of the locations before, the places appeared to be embedded into my consciousness from film, photography and fiction that I’ve been exposed to throughout my life.
Q: Once you have conceptualized your ideas, how do you go about shooting the work?
Usually the photographs take time to evolve. I’ll recognize the seed of an image. It could be the morning light falling on a bed, the red interior of a friend’s car, a pool of light on a deserted street at night. From this fragment or detail I’ll slowly start to build an image in my mind. Who can I insert into that scene? What should they be wearing? How should they stand? Sometimes an image is built around a particular person who has a certain look that I like. Once I feel I’ve worked out how to do it, I’ll revisit that place and take the portrait. This is how I shot the portraits in Suburban Splendour.
Even so, as with any portrait, there’s always an element of unpredictability. You never know how the dynamic is going to be in that encounter between yourself and the subject at that particular moment in time. Sometimes the subject will reveal a subtle change of expression or gesture that surprises you, and you end up with something amazing that you couldn’t have anticipated. That’s the beauty of photography. I don’t direct my subjects too rigorously so that these moments are allowed to emerge. Most of the time I’ll ask them generally to stand or sit in a certain location and let them assume a pose that they are comfortable with. Then I’ll just ask for small changes in positioning.
Q: Narrative features strongly in your work. When you are creating your images, do you work with the idea of a particular story in mind or are you leaving that to your viewers?
I often say that I’m a frustrated writer. I lack the confidence or ability to write well, so I try to convey what I want to say in a visual way as a still image. It’s not so much a specific story that I’m trying to portray, but an emotional tone revealed through managing performance, environment and light. Human frailty, everyday struggle, and disconnection are larger themes that I’m drawn to when I read fiction and it’s these elements that I try to express in my own work. Sometimes I’ll create a mise-en-scène where the narrative is strong, as in Frank (guy outside the Money Traders shop) or Jessica (the girl on the phone), but in all cases I’m conscious of keeping the narrative open, to create enough uncertainty to allow the viewer to bring their own experience into the picture. Ambiguity gives the image sustain, a sense of wonder. For me, the photographs that are most successful are those that penetrate the viewer in an emotional way, triggering something inside them, perhaps a recognition of an authentic experience from their past.
Many of the images in Suburban Splendour have self-contained narratives. Each image operates like a visual short story on its own. In the latest series that I’m working on called Waiting for the Miracle, I’m exploring narratives discovered through connections made between images by combining constructed portraits, straight documentary street portraits, landscapes and still life’s. The result will be more fluid and ambiguous.
Q: What kind of advice would you give to an emerging photographer?
Make work that is true to yourself and is important to you. Do that as passionately and as honestly as you can. That way your work will likely come across as authentic, and have your unique voice and perspective. Don’t make work trying to anticipate what the art market wants. If you don’t believe in it, it will never stand up after a while. Read a lot, become aware of the history of photography and be open with your influences. Trust your instincts. Take lots of pictures.
To view more of Graham’s work, visit his website.