Experience

Sandro Miller: "I Didn’t Want It To Be A Parody Or Something Funny"

Author of the "Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich" series explains why he doesn’t like color photography and how to turn a 50 year old man into Marilyn Monroe

Bird in Flight asked Vasily Levchenko to visit the Chicago studio of American photographer Sandro Miller and ask him about the process of creating his "Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich" project: why it took a whole year to do the preparatory work, why commercial photographers also need to make art, what is bad about selfies, and why Sandro’s studio stinks of dead skunk.

Sandro Miller, 56 years old

American portrait photographer known as Sandro. Has worked for American Express, BMW, Dove, Coca-Cola, Honda, Pepsi, Nikon, Microsoft, Nike, Adidas and the US army. Author of seven photography books, winner of "Best Emerging Director" award of the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity (2011) for a short, Butterflies featuring John Malkovich. Creator of "Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters" project.

Sandro’s studio is located on a quiet street in East Chicago; the light-colored art nouveau building stands out from the otherwise typical urban environment. It has high glass doors, and prints from Sandro’s projects are on the walls: bikers, Cubans, and Malkovich. The John Malkovich who so masterfully reincarnated into Salvador Dali, Marilyn Monroe and Mick Jagger and then became a big hit on the Web.

I’m sitting on a small couch in this studio while Sandro and his assistant are finishing a project in the other room. Though a half-opened door I can see a table with a motorcycle helmet on it. Outlines of training machines are visible upstairs - that’s where the gym is. Finally, Sandro sinks into an armchair in front of me. He is wearing jeans and a black sweater, and his hands are stained with paint. He looks friendly and calm.

"We are taking pictures of dead animals," he explains as he makes himself comfortable in the armchair. "It’s a dead skunk, we’re just shooting him. It’s exciting!"

Would that be a new exhibition?

Quite possibly. At least, I hope so. We’ve shown the work to some people and they liked it. We’ll see what happens next.


{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_17.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "From 'Death in the Garden of Eden’ series"
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_18.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "From ‘Death in the Garden of Eden’ series"
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_19.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "From ‘Death in the Garden of Eden’ series"
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_20.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "From ‘Death in the Garden of Eden’ series"
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_21.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "From ‘Death in the Garden of Eden’ series"
}

Is it what is so exciting and magnetic to people? These border conditions? (I am looking at photographs behind me - the "Cuba" series, black-and-white portraits of elderly people with traces of suffering.)

I think so, yes. This project done in Cuba helped me to deal with my own mortality and my own aging, something that you start to think about when you get into your 50’s. This project made me think about how the face and the whole personality are affected by the aging process, and eventually yes, it is meant to help me walk through it.


{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_01.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "From the 'Cuban Portraits' series"
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_02.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "From the 'Cuban Portraits' series"
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_03.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "From the 'Cuban Portraits' series"
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_04.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "From the 'Cuban Portraits' series"
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_05.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "From the 'Cuban Portraits' series"
}

If art helps you to get to know yourself, would it be right to say that in every person you photograph there is a piece of Sandro Miller?

Yes, I think so. My career is around photographing people and photographing people brings out a lot of feelings and emotions in them. I love to work with people; I feel very comfortable and I make them feel very comfortable too. And when they are that comfortable and that free, they open up and give you their little secret, their little magic something.

I think that much of it comes from my own childhood - I come from a very dysfunctional family, I’ve seen a lot of deaths. So to me it is easy to go back to places where there is pain and suffering.

Throughout my career I’ve been hired to show real emotion and do portraits of people that the viewer would want to know more about, and wonder what’s going on in the life of that person. It’s been really interesting work, I was both a director and a photographer. I need directing skills to get people go to a place where they feel comfortable. Even if I only met this person for 15 minutes I need to make them feel safe and build conditions where they would want to share that secret something. I do it by showing respect to that person, to his life, to his feelings. It is like building a safety container around them, where they open up like a flower.


{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_06.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Portraits of Barbara Crane (left) and Michael Jordan (right)"
}


{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_07.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Portrait of Michael Jordan"
}

It seems like a lot of people need those 15 minutes of calm, protection and respect.

Yes, many people want to know how I get these feelings and emotions from people and how I make them feel so comfortable. I tell them that I usually take the person’s hand when I am working (takes my hand with his hands - Author's note) and I just tell them, "Here is what we gonna do today." Maybe you feel a little nervous or uncomfortable at first but then the warmth of my hand, my energy goes through you and you think, "Alright, I am in a good place here. I want to give this guy something."

I like to touch my subjects, touch them on the hands, on the shoulders - even women. But very gently, in a loving and respectful way. And that’s when you break this wall, and everything changes.

Energy exchange.

Yes, that is the energy exchange between two humans and you always know when it comes from a place of love and caring and when doesn’t. My subjects feel that my energy is genuine, that I really wish them well - and that makes them open up, makes the walls fall down. And at this point we start working.

So if celebrities are used to be in front of the camera, those Cuban people in the photographs behind me…

...have never been in front of the camera, never had their picture taken, most of them. Maybe some of them - for the passport. They were so moved by the whole process that most of the time it didn’t take longer than 15 or 20 minutes to capture the things I wanted to capture. I never wanted to take just a ‘normal’ portrait that just had a dead pan and nothing was happening there. My inspiration has always been Irving Penn. His portraits are so powerful: they make you want to know more about that person, what is going on in his life, Penn’s portraits make you get really involved.


{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_15.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "From the 'Blues' series"
}


{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_16.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "From the 'Blues' series"
}

When you work with John Malkovich, who is in charge? You tell him what to do or he does everything his own way, interpreting your vision? Or is it both?

It’s a collaboration. First of all we, we have a long friendship, close to 17 years, so we know and trust each other. We know of each other’s work. John is a genius and he is absolutely amazing in front of the camera. He has no fear; he is tremendously confident; he’s totally brilliant. And for this particular project there was absolutely no one else who could do what John did. Do you know anyone else, a fifty-something old male - confident enough to play Marilyn Monroe? Who, what man, could possibly even think of doing that? But John very much welcomed the idea. He not just opened to it, he pulled it off.

Do you know anyone else, a fifty-something old male - confident enough to play Marilyn Monroe!

John could spend one or two hours making up just for one shot. Just one. We would put up the original picture on the mirror and John would study the photograph while getting the hair and the make-up done. So he had time to begin to morph his face and start thinking about what he needed to do. And when he was ready he would get on set and I would begin to direct him, about the photographer who’s taking his photograph, about the time, and the place.

"It’s 1962, it’s Bert Stern and Marilyn Monroe, they’ve been drinking martinis, you know, well into the night, her clothes are off, who knows really what went on between them, John? And right now you are this intoxicated very sexy Marilyn Monroe." He has seen the shot, has studied it, so he starts working in his head but now I’m giving this direction and the setting.

"We are in Bomond hotel, California, we’ve been drinking and Bert has probably come on too, just a little bit, Marilyn knows it and is feeling very sexy, she’s the queen, and she feels she needs to expose herself nude to get some new parts because at that time she was losing a couple of parts to a famous actress who had done a nude photo shoot." This is how I make John rediscover Marilyn, put him into her head.

"Over in David Bailey’s studio in London, there’s a party going on, so this time it’s Mick Jagger and David Bailey: they are smoking pot. It’s loud and smoky in the room, there’s a crowd of people, both David and Mick are stoned and they are working." John knows that shot, so now he is Mick Jagger and he’s stoned. And you watch that genius go to work. He’s in Mick’s mind and in David Bailey’s studio, he’s drunk and there is a bunch of other people around.


{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_13.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Sandro Miller, David Bailey / Mick Jagger, Fur Hood (1964), 2014"
}

It’s amazing! In this shot he even has Mick’s lips! In real life his lips look different.

Well, that’s a prosthetics: cotton, you put it behind the lip, it’s part of the make-up that we do. And you know, John knew how to work his lips, he was so in tune with every little detail what was necessary to capture the character. The migrant mother – a shot by Dorothea Lange - made on a pea farm in 1936, she has three children and doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from. A beautiful woman but aged by poverty. And I just talk John through that, "You’re in this tent, you’ve got three kids, you’re probably 27 years old, but you look 47." I am gradually guiding him to the image. And so he gets weary, gets tired, he looks beaten up, and becomes the migrant mother. He’s holding a child, two other kids are clinging to his back, their faces turned away. He becomes the mother. It’s amazing!

You put him into that setting, you let him think about 1936, "There’s the Dust Bowl, the Depression, your three kids are fatherless, you are exhausted - tired of hard labour, of the constant fight for survival, of life itself. You feel old." And it all gets to John and he acts it out. Perfectly.


{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_28.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Left: Sandro Miller, Dorothea Lange / ‘Migrant Mother’, Nipomo, California (1936), 2014. Right: Sandro Miller, Gordon Parks /’American Gothic’ (1942), 2014. "
}


{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_27.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Sandro Miller, Herb Ritts / Jack Nicholson, London (1988), 2014."
}

It was a really wonderful collaboration of two artists that truly wanted perfection in paying homage to the masters of photography. I never wanted this to be a parody, I didn’t want this to be funny. We wanted this to be serious work, that when people saw those photographs, they would think, "Wow, this really is great work, it’s such a beautiful homage, so cleverly done."

So it was very important to do our homework. For a year we dissected every image, finding out the wardrobe, the make up, the hair. A lot of hair had to be built. Take Hemingway’s hair it is terrible, we spent a lot of time recreating it - the materials for it had to be brought from LA. Or Che Guevara - he had such a sparse beard, it was very difficult to build without a netting or something like that, so we had to recreate it using hairs that were individually put on his face. My hair stylist Randy Wilder was directing a whole team of hair and makeup artists.

People hardly realize how much work went into it.

Of course those who know who I am understand what’s behind each image. But there are quite a few people I bet who think that it’s all done in digital - that I just took John’s head and put Che Guevara’s mustache on it in Photoshop. But no, I’m Old School, we do it right in the camera.


{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_33.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Sandro Miller, Bert Stern / Monroe's Cross."
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_32.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Sandro Miller, Andy Warhol / Fright Wig Self Portrait (1986), 2014."
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_31.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Sandro Miller, Victor Skrebneski / Bette Davis (1971) LA studio, 2014."
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_29.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Sandro Miller, Diana Arbus/ Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey (1967), 2014."
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_30.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Sandro Miller, Irvin Penn / Pablo Picasso, Cannes, France (1957), 2014."
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_34.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Sandro Miller, Arthur Sasse / Albert Einstein with His Tongue Out (1951), 2014."
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_35.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Sandro Miller, Robert Mapplethorpe /Selfportrait."
}

Like in circus people who spend years training for a very short trick?

Yes, you know the actual photo shoot would be 20 minutes. Aaron, my assistant, and I did all of the lightning weeks ahead of it and I took detailed notes. We had to be sure how to recreate the exact light used in the original photograph. It was a difficult process but we did all the homework prior to John’s arrival and it was like a very well ordered machine - everybody was so professional, people knew we were going for perfection, that was the one goal we had.

Some artists don’t like to discuss their old work but it sounds like this project means a lot to you.

I am very proud of this project, and happy because I know the work that went into it and I feel I achieved something that was very difficult to pull off. I’m a perfectionist and most of the time I don’t like to look at my work. I usually start doing something new right away. I have seven books out. When a book finally comes back from the publisher I don’t even look at it because I’m so tired of it. So I just put it away for five or six months and then I sit down and go through it and try to enjoy it. If I do it immediately after the work is done, I will definitely find something to be disappointed about. But this project is so fresh and there are so many museums and galleries around the world that want it – we are very busy trying to get it out there for the people to see. That’s where our efforts are going now.

Right now I am doing a lot of commercial work - a lot of TV commercials, many big campaigns for big clients, there’s a documentary I’m working on – so it’s really difficult, it’s a balancing act. I love my commercial world and my art world, so finding the balance between them is essential.

The commercial work is more of a problem solver. I am executing other people’s ideas, whereas the art work is really for my heart and soul and is truly done for myself otherwise I get burned out. You have to find that balance between what is feeding your soul and what is also feeding your wallet. So yes, we stay really busy in this studio.


{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_36.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Sandro Miller, Philippe Halsman / Salvador Dalí (1954), 2014."
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_37.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Sandro Miller, Albert Watson / Alfred Hitchcock with a goose (1973), 2014."
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_38.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Sandro Miller, Alberto Korda / Che Guevara (1960), 2014."
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_39.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Sandro Miller, Yousuf Karsh / Ernest Hemingway (1957), 2014"
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_40.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Sandro Miller, Annie Leibowitz / John Lennon and Yoko Ono (1980), 2014."
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_41.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Sandro Miller, Andres Serrano / Piss Christ."
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_42.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Sandro Miller, Carl Fischer / Muhammad Ali (1967), 2014."
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_43.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Sandro Miller. Irvin Penn / Truman Capote (1948), 2014."
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_44.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Sandro Miller, Edward Sheriff Curtis / Three Horses (1905), 2014."
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_45.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Sandro Miller, Richard Avedon / Bee Man (1981), 2014."
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_46.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Sandro Miller, Bert Stern / Marilyn in Pink Roses (from the last photo shoot, 1962), 2014."
}

Do you think it’s something that a lot of photographers aren't able to achieve? The balance between the business and the art world?

There are a lot of commercial photographers who will not pick up a camera unless they are getting paid and I think it’s a huge mistake. They are not doing personal work, and don’t realize their own ideas. But that’s what made me so prolific inside commercial photography. People see the work that I do for myself - they build a connection with me as as artist and a photographer. Don’t forget that great creative directors want to work with great artists. When you show a creative director that you have a thought of your own and a idea of your own - that is the kind of person they would like to work with - you’ll be the person who would bring something to the table for them. Not only do they want their job executed perfectly but they also want an idea. So my feeling is that a lot of photographers don’t spend enough time shooting their personal work.

Then let’s go back to your personal projects. Aging and death are the two themes that modern society is most sensitive about; we avoid thinking and talking about it. Make-up and plastic surgery industries are making enormous profit from it. But I sense that your project with dead animals is an attempt to give these topics some kind of a discourse.

Yes, we’re always trying to keep ourselves young. Especially in America, where advertising campaigns, beauty and fashion magazines make us dread aging and death. But for me this is part of life, and of course I think about it. But I’m not going to get any surgeries or anything like that. I’m dealing with the wrinkles that I have, knowing that death is probably twenty – twenty five years away, but it’s normal, it’s part of life, so it has to be met with dignity.

It’s funny that a lot of my work is around it, even the bull fighting project that I did with Joselito, the world’s number one bull fighter. I spent a whole month with him, in his universe where there is just the bull and the man, and one of them has to die. It was a celebration of life and death, but it was hard to watch the matador kill his best friend.

While choosing our clothes we are thinking of the way other people see us and who we want them to see. That’s why I prefer nudes.

As to the dead animal project, we will probably have close to fifteen of them by the time we are finished today. It all started with a bird that ran into my window and died. After a few months I found it again and looked at it. It was deteriorating; it was in that state where the flesh loses the last traits of a living being. I thought it very interesting, so I brought it to the studio and photographed it. I then showed the pictures around to some people and they really liked it. So we ended up blowing it out almost 4x4 feet and donated it to an auction for the museum of contemporary photography in Chicago. There was a lot of interest and it sold that same night. And then somebody reached out to me and asked if it’s possible to buy that print. So it actually sold it twice. And I thought - maybe there is something in that - if I find it beautiful maybe others will find it beautiful too. And we began shooting. At first dead birds, then today we are doing a dead skunk. Do you smell it a little bit in here?

I thought that it’s just the way your studio smells.

(Laughing.) No, there’s actually a dead albino skunk in here. A farmer, a friend of mine up in Michigan, found it by the road.

Would that be a black and white project?

Yes, they are all shot on white, very sharp, extremely graphic images. The camera equipment I am using right now is probably the sharpest one available, with the resolution of 60 megapixel. It allows me to blow these things up to 20 feet by 20 feet, and the detail is unbelievable.

Humans have color vision - why do you think black and white photography has such power and capacity to impress us?

Black and white images reveal emotions. Whereas color disguises and distracts. People can hide behind their colorful clothes, so to see them for real you get need to rid of all that and look them in the face. The truth is all in the face. Black and white photography eliminates all distractions and gets down to the pureness of emotion, the essence of being. That’s why I’ve always found black and white photography so powerful.


{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_23.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "From ‘Matador’ series"
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_22.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "From ‘Matador’ series"
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_24.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "From ‘Matador’ series"
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_25.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "From ‘Matador’ series"
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_26.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "From ‘Matador’ series"
}

By choosing our clothing we think about what we want people to think about us, how we want them to think about us. We are creating an impression, an image. That’s why there’s nothing more beautiful to me than the nude portrait, when you take everything away and it becomes just that person, with no wall between him and the viewer. I could shoot a homeless person with his clothes off and unless he hadn’t bathed or manicured his hands or trimmed his beard it would very difficult to tell that person from me or you. It was that clothing that gave him away. The shell.

Do you think that today we are all about shells? Creating profiles in social media, trying to make ourselves appear better than we really are?

Absolutely! And it’s so funny today with the selfie and profile pictures - people are changing them all the time, sending out dozens of pictures of themselves every day. We’re so infatuated with our looks and sharing them that we take over 93 million selfies a day. People are self-obsessed to the degree they start projecting out to the others who they want to be.

It’s really interesting to me how this new world perceives photography. It used to be an instrument to tell stories, big and important stories. And now it’s just for people to record every single thing they do during the day and put out so much crap into the world, not thinking about what they’re taking and sending out there. And most of this stuff has no idea behind it, no idea at all. We are just polluting the world and overstimulating ourselves with really bad imagery. It’s a shame.

Maybe we crave attention? We want to get noticed, feel that we are worthwhile, that we are needed in this world?

Oh, absolutely, we all want to create our own reality show. But it’s difficult for me to think about people who want to allow people to come in and film their lives every day - from morning till night, and then share it with everybody. Because most of our lives are pretty ugly and uninteresting. Everyone is doing more or less the same thing. But people would do anything to get that little bit of fame. It’s not even about money, it’s just about a little bit of fame.

Always behind the camera as a photographer and a director, have you ever wanted to be part of the picture, as an actor or a model?

No, not really. I’m very comfortable in front of the camera - they’re even doing a documentary on me right now, but that’s simply not my place. My place is documenting the people, that’s something I was put on Earth for.

How about teaching, do you have any interest in that?

I do, there is a possibility the Columbia College will be the venue for me. This summer I will be teaching at the Santa Fe workshops, so I’m really excited about that. I love lecturing to kids about photography, inspire them, help them along to find their path in life. I like to open their talents up. Sometimes I think there might be a special teacher at school who would walk into your life and help you change the way you think about it.


{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_08.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Portraits"
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_09.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Portraits"
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_10.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Portraits"
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_11.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Portraits"
},
{
"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/sandro_12.jpg",
"alt": "Photo by Sandro Miller 01",
"text": "Portraits"
}

What’s the question young photographers most often ask you?

"What does it take to be as successful as you are Sandro?" I don’t want them to measure success by looking around my studio. What is success to me can be a much different thing to you. Success could be $60,000 a year, $250,000 or half a million a year, everybody has a different desire for success. I basically let them know that when you feel content, when you feel happy with yourself, then you are successful. Don’t try to achieve what I achieved because we didn’t go down the same path. Do what you need to do and whatever feels good in your heart, then you are successful. Because success is not just taking pictures, success is having good relationships, raising children, there is a lot in being successful. It’s not about how much money you can make. And I’m trying to get kids to understand that, there’s so much more to life than money or being some kind of a TV star. 99% of us live regular lives and we need to be happy with it. I think success is the ability to be happy.

You mentioned kids. How did you manage balancing being a single parent and having a career?

It was difficult, it was probably the most difficult part of my life. I became a single parent when I was 23 years old and I just started working in this business. I was working for one of the most talented photographers in the country and he was working all the time, and you know, when you get a job with a guy like that you can’t say "Oh, I need a day off." So I was commuting from my hometown, Elgin, to Chicago, working 10-12-14 hours a day, going home and parenting. My mom helped me so much in those years with my daughter, it was so important to me to have her help. I owe her so much, and I feel very thankful.

Do your children share your passion for photography?

My son works for me and he is just beginning to share that passion. And my daughter is an accountant; she has zero interest in arts.

When you decided to become a photographer was your family supportive?

My father passed away when I was 4 years old. My mother was from Italy, she was an immigrant, very uneducated, she struggled to even get us through school, to pay to get us through school. I don’t think she had any idea what it meant to be a photographer - that there is a career in photography. When I was about fifteen years into my career and there was a big exhibition of my work in Verona, Italy, I brought her there to see it. On walking into the museum she started to cry. I think at this point she understood that photography is not a game, but a huge investment of time and passion, and my work was right there. It was a very special moment in our lives.

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