Mike Miller: Mastermind of 90s Hip Hop Photography

Renowned photographer of 90s Hip Hop stars and Los Angeles culture Mike Miller reflects on his career and his advice for the next generation of photographers.
mike miller photographed by Castro Frank

Renowned photographer of 90s Hip Hop stars and Los Angeles culture Mike Miller reflects on his career and his advice for the next generation of photographers.

Mike Miller photo by Castro Frank
Photograph by Castro Frank

1990s Los Angeles was idealized through images documenting the rise in Hip Hop and Rap culture. A distinctive West Coast style emerged and gained national and even global attention. At the heart of some of the most emblematic imagery is Mike Miller. Miller, a Los Angeles-based photographer, has become the simultaneous archivist and creator of how we recall the history of the genre.

Since his start, he has worked with renowned artist, been on the radar for fashion and commercial campaigns, and has been entrenched in evolving musical cultures. Many still recognize his work from his iconic portraits of the classics, Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur. However, his work is more than documenting the people in front of his lens. His work is a portrait of the city, the culture, that birthed a community distinct from any other on the musical scene at the time. Today, we trust his eye as he captures new figures, moments, and spaces that will undoubtedly become part of the cultural canon.

Tainted Magazine had the honor to ask the Los Angeles legend about his experiences with photography, the music and west coast culture scene, and some of his thoughts about the future.

From 2pac to Today

Miller has been a part of the Hip Hop and West Coast scenes for three decades. In that time he not only had innumerable unimaginable experiences but has become a skilled photographer and artist. With this in mind, Tainted Magazine wanted to learn more about Miller’s own thoughts on his career and practice.

TM: You have led a spectacular career photographing numerous subjects of international acclaim. Amongst the countless shoots you have conducted, what would you say is the most memorable moment you have experienced from behind the camera?

MM: I had been discussing shooting Tupac for a little over a year and he was just getting more famous. So to finally lockdown that day and him showing up. That moment was huge. I don’t know if people realize he was so famous while he was alive. He was a huge celebrity.

The lifers group at Rahway prison in New Jersey. Just to be in an environment like that, it was a heavy day. It’s hard to express the feeling of going into that confinement with the original members of scared straight. 

tupac by mike miller for tainted magazine

lifer group photo by Mike Miller
The lifers group at Rahway prison in New Jersey.

TM: When one views your website there is an immediate distinction between ‘New Work’ and ‘Old Work’. What changes or evolutions to your photography practice led you to make this distinction? What are the primary differences between ‘new’ and ‘old’?

MM: Well just off the top of my head the new work is digital. All of the old work was film. My new work is half digital and half film. Also, the age of the artist. I was a reluctant photographer to move into digital. I was forced to get with the times if I wanted to keep working for record labels or companies, they expected digital.

TM: Throughout your catalog, there is a distinct relationship between the subject and setting, especially apparent with scenes of Los Angeles. To you, as the artist, how would you describe the significance of location to creating a final image?

MM: It’s really significant for me. I love shooting in the streets. Sometimes it could be just a simple location that just has a lot of open space. For example, Tupac wanted Street and a certain vibe. I had my wife help me scout and I really wanted to give him strong street locations. Los Angeles itself is so visual,  it’s kind of a no-brainer. 

2pac photographed by Mike Miller

The Act of Photographic Ressurection

Miller’s whirlwind of a career as a photographer is more than who he photographs, it is how. His style has become iconic amongst hip hop culture from the 90s through contemporary culture today. He manages to reinvent his subjects, breathe new life into their surrounding. He has become a master of the technical skills behind the camera alongside the artistic composer of his final imagery.

DMX by mike miller for tainted magazine

TM: While your style has a distinctive manipulation of light and perspective, one of the most arresting aspects of your images is your use of color. First, can you explain how you determine which images are presented in black and white as opposed to in color? Second, there is a vivacity to the images you chose to depict in color. Can you explain the creative process behind the deep saturations within your photographs?

MM: I learned early on how to process my film in reverse chemical baths which gave a strong saturation with my film images, it’s also known as cross-process E6 in C41 and vice versa.

As far as digital goes, I try to make it look similar to keep my style. Nowadays I shoot black and white film and color with digital.

In the moment I know when I want something black and white and to me everything in black-and-white is timeless. 

TM: Within many of your images we see your subjects accompanied by props; dollar bills set ablaze, classic cars, even the occasional animal skull. What dictates your artistic decision to include a prop alongside a subject?

MM: Usually I work with art directors or the artists on concept or vibe. So, for instance, the animal skull photo was for the cover of Numero magazine and it was a voodoo vibe. So when there’s some type of concept or vibe it gives me a direction for props and how to shoot it. 

king t photo by Mike Miller

TM: Now to the technical. When you are preparing for a shoot, what are your essential ‘go-to’ pieces of equipment?

MM: I shoot on a Canon because I can use the same lenses on the Canon film cameras and digital. I also shoot 120 film on my 67 Mamyia and Pentax which I’ve had forever. 

TM: For all the young and aspiring photographers reading this interview, what is a piece of advice you would like to share?

MM: Learn other areas in photography, editing, final cut photoshop etc.

If someone asked me how I made it in the early days I was very social so a big part of getting work was working in the night clubs and just hanging out in the LA scene. If you’re more of an introvert then they need to find whatever they love and get involved with that.

photograph of Aaliyah by Mike Miller
coolio mike miller photo for tainted magazine
Eazy E NWA by mike miller for tainted magazine

The Legacy Continues

A career, established on decades of incredible experiences, notoriety, and opportunity, Mike Miller has cemented himself in the artistic and cultural history of Los Angeles. However, his artistic career is far from slowing down:

TM: Lastly, what is next for Mike Miller?

MM: I’m really lucky to be doing what I love the most, shooting musicians. I’m also trying to put together another book.

With numerous projects on the horizon, Mike Miller has proven he will continue to capture and adapt to the evolutions of music, photography, and the city for all of us to witness.

photo of Mike Miller by Castro Frank
Photography by Castro Frank

All photos courtesy of Mike Miller Photography.

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