'Love West Coast,' the latest exhibition at Dax Gallery of photographer Mike Miller's commercial photography from the '90s to today, is a look at influential veterans of the west coast rap scene from the '90s as well as newer, more recent shots from Miller's new photobook Love West Coast Girls. Miller's show, more than anything, details his love for Southern California's diverse set of cultures and subcultures, from hip-hop to skate to lowriders, with an eye for street photography. And along with the help of his wife, collaborator and stylist Shannon, Miller has been able to capture a gritty aesthetic in his work that has since influenced other fashion photographers to this day.
Growing up in Santa Monica, Miller developed an interest in skateboarding and recalls moving to Paris as a young man. It was there that Miller met legendary fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh and gained a knowledge his knowledge of photography and grew into his own as a commercial photographer. He later moved back to the states with a portfolio of fashion photography and was hired to shoot album covers, shooting a variety of musicians like The Go-Gos, Stan Getz and Herb Albert.
But hip-hop and rap was Miller's wheelhouse. Some of his most iconic work has been of Tupac Shakur, Eazy-E, N.W.A., Arabian Prince, Warren G, Ice Cube, Coolio, and more.
“People don't believe that shot of Eazy-E with the skateboard was real, I'd get all kinds of responses like 'you probably Photoshopped that in!'” Eazy was so charismatic. I was skateboarding one time in front of Ruthless Records working on a shoot with Eazy and he pulls up and is like, “Oh you skate? I skate too,” and he pulls out a skateboard that was famous at the time with a Satan image on it, it was also banned, and here was Eazy riding up on that banned skateboard.”
It wasn't long before Miller's work became sought after by record companies. “When I was shooting rap covers, [record companies] would just throw money at me, there was no art direction. They'd just go, 'Mike do it'. They would also give me the worst case scenario, like, 'oh God, we don't want to deal with Pantera so just go shoot them.' But they're just regular people.”
Miller's own working class background lent itself to finding some harsh backgrounds to shoot in, but often lead to some sticky situations. “The locations were always what I looked for to make a story,” Shannon Miller says, “I didn't even know the neighborhood really well but I just drove around and I'm just writing down streets to shoot in. And [Mike] would get there and he loved [the area] and it was all good, but once some cholos drove up and were like “this is our memorial to a mural for someone who had just passed away.' And then it turned into a not good situation.”
Miller recalls another occasion where a photo shoot would get a little hairy. “Most of my shoots were in Compton, Watts, Inglewood or Southgate or East LA and Downtown LA. There was this one cover we were shooting with Tupac… it turned out we were shooting in the Blood neighborhood. People started coming out of the woodwork and it got a little hairy, these guns were coming out, and Tupac was just like, 'we gotta go.'”
Although even with the tumultuous times in Los Angeles during the '90s, Shannon admits there wasn't much of a social commentary behind their shoots. “It was never planned to make a point, we just never thought that deep. We just had concepts and stories to tell, and we just wanted to make it look good and make it great.”
The affable Miller still shoots hip-hop figures today like Boozy, A$AP Rocky, YG and Yo Yo. His newest photobook Love West Coast Girls brings back Miller's cross-processing technique which he originated in Europe in the late '80s, and features shots of upcoming actresses, models, surfers, skaters, cholas and other southern California beauties. Miller's own brand of street-fashion photography has remained influential for later generations of bloggers, street photographers, and fashion photographers to this day, and Miller still stays as “rough, rugged and raw” as when he started. “it doesn't matter where you're from or where you point me to, i'll just find locations… so every time we shoot a roll of film we get the shot. That's my style, 'get the shot'.”
Love West Coast is on display at DAX Gallery until October 10. DAX Gallery is located at at 2951 Randolph Ave, Costa Mesa. Find gallery information at daxgallery.com
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers the Orange County DIY music scene, film, arts, Latino culture and currently pens the long-running column Trendzilla. Born, raised, and based in Santa Ana, she loves bad movies, punk shows, raising her plants, eating tacos, Selena, and puns.