If you’re going to be so bold as to recreate 41 culturally iconic images, ranging from famed photographer Bert Stern’s Marilyn Monroe photos to notorious photographer Richard Avedon’s beekeeper, using a single subject for all your photographs, you had better choose someone versatile, who can completely transform into becoming someone else.
John Malkovich fits the bill.
“He’s a complete genius. I knew he could morph himself into Hemingway, Che Guevara, Hitchcock and Marilyn Monroe,” says photographer Sandro Miller over the phone from his Chicago home. “I knew it had to be done with perfection and that John understood what I was asking him to do, to morph himself into characters that were females, older than him and more powerful than him. I’m not sure anybody could have pulled it off like John.”
Miller's re-creations of famous photos with the actor inserted are part of the exhibit “Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters,” running at Fahey/Klein Gallery from Feb. 12 to March 21.
Miller established a bond with Malkovich 17 years ago, when the pair met while Miller was shooting Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s ensemble members. Over the years Miller has accumulated over 120 portraits of Malkovich. And while looking at a photograph of Malkovich one day, Miller noticed what he felt to be a resemblance between the twice Oscar nominated actor and writer Truman Capote. Inspired by Irving Penn, Miller’s long time favorite photographer, he decided to try to recreate one of Penn’s famous shots, with Malkovich, of Capote crouching in a corner. “I started showing that around and I wanted to hear people’s critique,” says Miller. “Everyone fell in love with what we had re-created.”
From there, Miller, who suffered from stage 4 neck and throat cancer (he has been cancer-free for three years), began to fantasize about creating a tribute to all of his favorite photographers, including Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe and Dorothea Lange. “I had just gotten out of an illness where it was a life and death situation. When you come back from something like that you really start thinking about things that are very important to you,” says Miller. “I thought I should pay homage to the photographers who have changed my life.”
After creating a list of culturally iconic shots and flying to the south of France to present Malkovich with his elaborate idea, the collaboration was borne.
“My biggest worry was not recreating in a way that was perfect,” says Miller. To ensure that the photos would be as close to the originals as possible, Miller spent over a year researching each photo, from the wardrobe to the lighting, taking extensive notes. “What you can’t do with a superstar like John in your studio is you can’t have him waiting around for you to figure out how to light these shots. Time is of the essence.”
When it came time to shoot, the images were completed over the course of six 15-hour days. Malkovich, who sat for hair and make-up for up to two hours a day, was so fully transformed that Miller says that Malkovich’s wife, Nicole, was stunned. “I brought her to my computer screen to look at the Einstein shot and she said, ‘That’s going to be such a wonderful shot to do with John.’ I said, ‘Take a really close look.’ She said, ‘Oh my god, that is John.’”
When five of the images appeared at a Chicago art fair, people began taking cell phone photos and sending them out across various social media platforms which cause the project to go viral. “John was absolutely blown away,” says Miller. “He called and said, ‘You created a fucking tidal wave. No one wants to talk about my fucking movie. They only want to talk about these fucking pictures.’ But he loved it. He loved the press he was getting and he loved the work.”
Had Miller created what was perceived to be a parody, instead of a collection rooted in honor, celebration and respect, “It would have been a really sore part of my career. I think I could have been laughed out of this business.”
“Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters” opens at Fahey/Klein Gallery February 12 and runs through March 21.
Fahey/Klein Gallery will host an artist talk with Sandro Miller on February 14 at 1pm.
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