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An Interview with Photographer Harold Lee Miller

By Charlie Clark for Blend Creative Team, a digital marketing agency that brings excitement back to brands. 

When we come across people who inspire us, we want to tell their stories. Harold Lee Miller, an award-winning national advertising photographer, is one of those people. Harold shoots from his studio in the Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis, or on location for clients nationwide. His client list includes Sprint, Kimberly-Clark, Miller Lite, Frito Lay, Pfizer, Roche, State Farm, Nike, Toyota and Conseco. Harold won first-place in the 2013 American Photographic Artist’s national Lifestyle competition, while his work in a LaCrosse Footwear campaign was listed among Print Magazine’s Top 10 Editors Picks for 2014. Read on to learn about Harold’s start in the business, his philosophy on branding and building portfolios, and why he doesn’t geek out on equipment
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Blend: How did you get into photography?
Harold: My dad was in the military and we were at Camp Zama in Japan, where you can buy really good cameras for cheap. My high school had a pretty strong photography department. One day, someone took me in a dark room where I saw photos developing in these trays. It was magical. The physical process was attractive and appealing to me. At the time, I was the yearbook editor and started taking pictures for the yearbook. In college, I majored in journalism but just considered myself a hobbyist photographer. Eventually, I went on to work at newspapers and magazines and did fine art photography on the side.

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Blend: So what happened to the journalism career?
Harold: I sort of hit a dead end in the newspaper business. It just wasn’t working out. I wanted to do something I felt I had more control over. I had seriously started thinking about photography as a profession in 1987. In 1989, I left Fort Wayne (Ind.) and opened a studio in Indianapolis to do fine art photography.

Blend: How was the transition?
Harold: I knew how to take photographs but I didn’t know how to run a business. I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t have any contacts. No one would even hire me to be an assistant. But it still wasn’t that complicated. Making money at it wasn’t terribly hard. The hardest part was making a decision to do it, and taking the risk to do it. I opened a shop, hung out a shingle. When you work for someone else, there are different challenges. But when you’re promoting yourself … ‘I’m selling me.’ There are a lot of emotional challenges specific to that endeavor that I hadn’t encountered before. I knew I could make money taking whatever was available. But there’s a decision-making process I had to go through that took years and years … saying ‘no’ to things that I didn’t want and saying ‘yes’ to the things I wanted. All that stuff is exposed when you’re working for yourself.

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Blend: You decided on advertising photography. Why?
Harold: It’s the closest thing in commercial photography to fine art photography. With advertising photography, there are all kinds of pictures that are more conceptual and more fun than weddings, portraits and retail. In this field, I’ve been asked to do a lot of different projects that aspire to fine art. It’s more compatible with what I want to do. It’s the closest thing to fine art that would also pay me.

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Blend: Harold, how do you compete with the thousands of photographers out there?
Harold: If you’re in the marketing business, you have to stand out. I create images that are distinctly mine … they evoke something. I’m a person who can create high-level artful imagery. But there’s always the need to find a balance between what you want to do and what the market is buying. For my portfolios, I try to find images that are appealing but fit within a category that my buyers can relate to. If they’re too edgy, clients may be insecure about my ability to do the things they need.

Blend: What is your favorite equipment?

Harold: I’m not a a real gear guy. I have a Hasselblad media format digital camera and a couple of Canons and lenses. They’re all really good, but my set up is really simple. I’m meticulous about lighting, but I’m using it less and less. As far as gear, I like gear that’s so predictable it becomes obsolete. It’s a tool for me. I don’t want to think about it. There’s so much about Canons I don’t know. I don’t care. I’m a bit simple with my technical gear too. I found lightweight remote control strobes that I really like … Einstein lights by Paul C. Buff. The remote is awesome. It makes everything simple and easy. And if they break, they’re inexpensive and easy to replace.

Blend: What is your creative process?
Harold: The first thing I want to know is ‘What is the objective?’ ‘What are you trying to get across?’ ‘What is the most interesting way we can do that visually and still achieve that objective?’ When shooting Blend Creative Team, I knew you didn’t want normal head shots … but something with more style, something that’s fresh and current … not corporate. So, the shots are looser and more candid. There’s a lot of thought that goes into bigger projects, including a creative brief that takes into account the concept and details on how I would execute the job.

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Blend: How do you collaborate with your clients?
Harold: Sometimes I will get a client that really has this thing buttoned down, and they’re just looking for someone capable of executing it. They will listen to ideas and all that, but it’s already been run up the flagpole. Other times, people will come to me and say we want to do a campaign but we don’t have it figured out. They’re hiring me for my vision. That’s the best way for me to do work. They’re not just hiring hands … they want my thinking, my outlook and my style. That’s the most challenging and rewarding type of project. I will reference what I’ve done or reference other photographers’ work as examples and give them a vision. Then I help them solve the problem. Once we’re in the middle of the shoot, everything we discussed earlier is up for negotiation. There are a lot of opportunities that can come up. Things you didn’t think about. You are forming and shaping a production to make it the best it can be. And that’s what it is … a production. I’ve had shoots where there are 20 people on the set, including stylists, assistants, props, models … With bigger projects like that, I will bring in a production team.
harold - 016Blend: You mentioned you have to ‘sell yourself’ as a business owner. How are you doing that these days?
Harold: I have to get in front of them a taste of who I am as a person and as an artist. When I curate my work I’m careful about what each picture says. I’m always looking at my work, and asking ‘What am I saying about myself?’ I’m always involved in recreating and evolving my brand. Over the years, it changes as what I want to say changes. Now I’m sort of trying to put into my book more nice Lifestyle stuff and adding to my Conceptual work. I’m trying to build on those three areas … Portrait, Lifestyle, Conceptual. I want to get a mix of all that stuff to show people. It requires me doing a lot of personal work that I don’t get paid for. I want to show what I’m capable of doing … not just what I’ve done for clients.

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Blend: Tell us more about building your personal brand.
Harold: That branding part is what I spend a lot of time thinking about. It’s almost a semi-hobby … looking at other people and looking at how to brand them. It’s a lot easier to see how to brand someone else … I can see their weak spots and strong spots and figure out what’s marketable. It’s much harder to do it for myself. I have so many conflicting desires and emotional reactions to things. You have to focus on not just what you can work out, but who you are as a person.

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Note: Original published on April 22, 2015 by the Blend Creative Team. Some photographs have been added since the original posting. 

What’s all this?

MANHATTMAN is hosted by Norman Maslov, whose Agence Internationale, represents a small group of wonderful photographers. This blog showcases images from these artists along with scribes about music, films, food, gin martinis and hats. Pontifications from a native San Franciscan and his extended family and friends. So it goes.

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