Behind the Photo: Mike Miller’s Long Relationship With 2Pac

Photographer Mike Miller is a third-generation Angeleno. In a city full of transplants, he exudes the attributes for which the place has become known; hustle, creativity, and a desire to represent for others who call Los Angeles their lifelong home.

Miller grew up in Hollywood before settling on the Westside. There, he became enamored of the ’70s skateboarding and surf culture. He always had a dream of picking up a camera, but in his early days, he envisioned himself as the next young Hollywood director, never suspecting that he’d achieve instant recognition for his photographs of Dogtown skate legends like Tony Alva and Dave Hackett who hung out with his older cousins.

“As a kid I tried taking photos of them with my uncle’s camera,” he says. “Hackett showed me a contact sheet and said my shots were killer with perfect amplitude and altitude." 

He honed his craft in places like Paris and Barcelona, where he experimented with different films mixed with different chemical baths. To listen to him describe the process is equal parts chess master calculating his next move and mad scientist concocting a potion. Words and letter-number combinations like “Dektol,” “E-6 bath,” and “C-41 film” roll off his tongue with little worry that his photographic knowledge might be lost on a layman. He doesn’t care. It’s his story, and he’s not dumbing it down for anyone.

His photographic sensibility, which he calls “European style,” lent itself to shooting fashion. His first gig was for fashion house Cacharel in Paris 1987. After signing with an agency — Visages in Los Angeles — his first three assignments were for American Vogue. His agency continued to book him for similar gigs until the music department took note of his unique approach. They wanted him to begin shooting music acts as well. He made an immediate splash with label work for A&M and artists like Stan Getz, Herb Alpert, and The Go Go’s which got him his first billboard.

As West Coast Hip-Hop acts began blowing up nationwide, Miller became the go-to photographer for album covers. Artists like 2Pac, the Alkaholiks, Ice Cube, Warren G, Souls of Mischief, and N.W.A all stepped in front of his lens. Although it may have seemed a major departure from shooting previous acts like Stan Getz to shooting 2Pac, Miller used a similar approach.

“It’s really about the subject, the composition, and the environment where you’re shooting,” Miller says.

Miller fondly recalls shooting the iconic photograph of 2Pac wielding two large birds like a Hip-Hop Jack Hanna in front of an East LA warehouse. The two had worked together on several occasions, notably during 2Pac’s brief tenure on Menace II Society. He had specifically been drawn to Miller’s work with Stüssy and a photograph that was used for Cypress Hill’s debut album.

“Pac picked me because he liked my portfolio,” he says. “It wasn't because I was his bro, it was because he liked my work. He would just go, ‘Mike shoot me like this.’ ”

In 1994, Miller felt comfortable enough to ask 2Pac to step away from a music video shoot for an impromptu session with his Pentax 67 outfitted with a 45-millimeter lens, which gave a fish-eye effect.

“With that lens, you really have to center it,” Miller explains. “You can’t go to the edges because then it gets too distorted. That was what I did. Sometimes, I really over-direct. With people like Pac, it’s pretty natural. I would just tell him what I wanted. And most of my work is, like, very cinematic. As a photographer, this is a good tip. You don’t want to stay stagnant in a full light setup because sometimes it doesn't work. It’s better to come in tight and get the expression close. So I always try to really concentrate on changing up so I can get something in the eyes.”

The photograph beautifully captures 2Pac’s essence. Miller won’t soon forget the encounter.

“He was an intelligent, charismatic, and truthful,” he says. “Everything that you’d want in a friendship, that’s how you got it from Pac. He was just a good dude.”

* Banner Image: Tupac Double FU 1994 / Photo by Mike Miller

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