If anyone can transform into character, it’s John Malkovich. If his awards aren’t enough to convince you of this, a new art project will. In a handful of days, Malkovich meticulously embodied John Lennon, Albert Einstein, Muhammad Ali, and dozens of other personalities for photographer Sandro Miller’s latest project, Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters.
A tribute to legendary photographer Irving Penn sparked it all. Two years ago, while working with Malkovich on one of the many projects they’ve collaborated on throughout their friendship, Miller caught a glimpse of Truman Capote—a former subject of Penn’s—in the actor. He threw together a makeshift corner, dressed Malkovich in an oversized topcoat and began re-creating Penn’s iconic portrait of the author.
The outcome was so uncanny that Miller decided to pay homage to all of the photographers who have inspired him throughout his 40-year career—Annie Leibovitz, Dorothea Lange, Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, and many more—using Malkovich to reproduce some of their most iconic works.
Self-taught, Miller has had an outstanding 40-year career as a photographer. He has worked with a slew of big-name companies, including American Express, BMW, Coca-Cola, Nike, and the U.S. Army, on big-budget advertising campaigns. He has sneaked in and out of Cuba to photograph the world’s greatest boxers and athletes. He’s captured trapeze artists in motion, snake charmers in Morocco, bullfighters in Spain, and daredevil motorcycle racers on the streets of Chicago.
But, his work with John Malkovich seems to be his constant—a 17 year relationship of ongoing projects.
While Malkovich was an ensemble member of the Steppenwolf Theater Company, Miller was enlisted to photograph the cast. The two instantly hit it off as both friends and collaborators. Miller has since created over 120 portraits, award-winning videos, and many other personal projects with Malkovich as his subject.
“He is a genius willing to take chances,” Miller said over email. “With a talent that allows him to become anything I ask.”
While visiting Malkovich at his home in France, Miller proposed his latest project. “I knew he was the only actor who would be willing to morph into the numerous subjects portrayed in the original images.” They spent the next year researching clothing, hair, makeup, lighting, and props. Miller hired a team of specialists to make sure each image was flawlessly created.
The actor transformed from a sensual Marilyn Monroe to a whimsical Salvador Dali to a starving migrant mother, seamlessly.
“It was amazing watching John as we recreated the twins in the Diane Arbus shot,” Miller told The Daily Beast of the famous portrait of identical twins with not-so-identical personalities. “Watching him transform in just a matter of seconds from the little girl who had fear and hesitation to the other girl who was inquisitive and excited was really jaw dropping.”
“He would really nail down the very important feelings that each one of these characters were portraying to their master photographers.”
Aside from Miller’s extensive work with John Malkovich, he has also traveled the globe capturing the lives and cultures of local citizens.
In 1999, he began illegally traveling to Cuba to photograph the country’s professional boxers. “Any time you do a big project on boxing, you have to include Cuban boxers because they are the best in the world,” he said. Miller would enter and exit the communist country through Mexico, Panama, and the Bahamas, braving security during a time when the U.S. and Cuba were still on the mend from the Cold War. The political tension between the two countries was still palpable. He faced fines, jail time, and was even threatened with having his passport revoked—by the U.S., at least.
“I felt as an American tax payer that they really didn’t have the right to keep me out of Cuba. I wasn’t spending money there. I wasn’t supporting a group. I was there for the arts.”
Cuba wanted him to stay.
“I was asked by the Cuban government to come back and photograph all of their sports heroes,” he said. It was something that had never been done since Castro took power in 1959.
The government brought together 90 of their greatest athletes, some of the best in the world. The project was historic in the country, and for them to choose an American photographer was unexpected and unorthodox, but wholly embraced by Miller. “I wanted to give something to the children so they could learn about their sports heroes.” He was the first person to collaborate with Cuba after the trade embargo of 1960.
But, according to Miller, sneaking into a restricted country wasn’t his most challenging project; spending time with a bullfighting master was. For his photo novel El Matador, Miller went on a month-long journey with a Spanish matador, Joselito, to learn the ins and outs of the spectator sport with a rich history. “There was a lot of hesitation from Joselito to really trust me,” Miller said. Americans’ negative views of the tradition made the matador very skeptical of Miller’s interest. “But towards the end we became very close friends and he allowed me to photograph some very sacred moments.”
Miller wanted the Malkovich project to be taken just as seriously as his other work. “I didn’t want this to be a parody,” he said. “If Diane Arbus was to wake up today and see the shot, I would hope she would think that I really did her well. I hope all these photographers think that.”
Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters will be on display at Catherine Edelman Gallery, in Chicago, from November 7, 2014, to January 31, 2015. The show will travel to Los Angeles, New York, Dallas, Paris, and Italy.