Sandro Miller remembers it well. That day in his studio, a full crew of assistants and Ogilvy & Mather advertising clients were awaiting direction on the next shoot when his phone rang. He had to answer. Hearing his doctor’s words, “I took a Mike Tyson punch to the gut,” says Sandro, who goes only by his first name. “Cancer? I don’t have time for cancer.”
That was July 2011. There in Chicago, 34 years into an award-winning career, he had long since arrived just where he wanted, as one of the world’s best advertising photographers. Clients like BMW, Dove, Coca-Cola, Nike, GQ, Forbes and Esquire had him shooting bigname CEOs, and famous athletes and actors. As personal projects, he’d photographed renowned Chicago blues musicians and traveled the globe documenting boxing.
For four years, Sandro also had followed bikers to an annual Harley-Davidson rally in North Dakota, making 300-plus portraits of them. A few were featured in one of The New Yorker’s first pictorials, and many more as American Bikers (Te Neues Pub Group, 1998). The book joined others featuring his photos, namely Michael Jordan’s I Can’t Accept Not Trying: Michael Jordan on the Pursuit of Excellence (Harper San Francisco, 1994) and El Matador: Joselito: A Pictorial Novel (Charta, 2010), which includes portraits of the acclaimed Spanish bullfighter. In 1999, the Cuban government invited Sandro down to photograph its athletes, the first U.S./Cuba collaboration since the 1960 trade embargo, which led to his book Imagine Cuba: 1999–2007 (Charta, 2009).
“I was creating and banking it like never before. My schedule was full, with all these great shoots lined up.” And now this — stage 4 neck and throat cancer. “My doctors told me if I made it through, it would be one of the most painful years of my life.”
For Sandro, who thankfully did make it through, it was also one of the most life affirming. He continued working during chemo and radiation, thinking hard about what mattered most. “Love became the most important feeling. I loved my wife, my kids, my family harder and deeper,” he tells me. “And photographing, which has been the center of my universe, took on new meaning.” He still snapped up the high-end commercial work. “But now it had to bring awareness to people’s lives and change them for the better.” His personal work, for himself, foundations or charities, “had to continue to come from the heart and be of a subject I was deeply connected to or curious about. I knew now that my life wouldn’t go on forever, and whatever I did behind the camera had to be fantastic and meaningful and helpful to others.”
It has been, especially when it comes to his portraits, for which he is most well known. With all their wrinkles, enlarged pores and scars, the faces in Sandro’s photos tell what’s truest about his subjects. “In the end it’s always about storytelling,” he says. That’s why he generally prefers plain backgrounds. “I try to avoid distractions that take away from my sitter’s eyes, mouth, hands.” He also prefers controlled lighting and says he can use hundreds of different types of lights to light someone a thousand different ways. “Sandro is a master at lighting. His ability to see and understand it is part of what makes him so successful,” says Hollywood-celebrity portrait photographer Greg Gorman.
Even deep in Morocco, no sunlight entered the makeshift studios that Sandro and his crew set up in riads and rented apartments, Moroccan-blanket tents and mud houses. Inspired by Irving Penn’s Small Trades and August Sander’s Face of Our Time, for 20 days in November 2013 he traveled around photographing 230 local bakers, carpenters, Gnawa musicians, snake charmers, a fossil-digger, a clown and other tradespeople and nomads in front of a large canvas he had painstakingly hand-dyed blood red (generously paying them). In Photoshop he converted only the people to black-andwhite; 30 of them peer out from the pages of his book, Eyes of Morocco (Blanchette Press, 2014). The series won him the Lucie Foundation’s 2014 International Photographer of the Year Award, one of dozens of awards he’s received.