UPAA Blog 2021-22 #9- 12/30/21 (photo by Jeff Miller) A student reads a book on Bascom Hill at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, May 2002. Despite the image being of college-age itself, "I'm pleased to say that I think the photo still holds up," Jeff says. "I have a large metallic print of this photo in my office. It still pops and I still enjoy looking at it."
Jeff Miller is a UPAA Master of the Profession and director of photography in University Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has been at UW-Madision for 31 years. This blog article was inspired by a Zoom presentation Jeff gave in May 2021 for the PhotoMidwest group based in Madison Wisconsin. You can watch that entire presentation with Q&A here.
The calendar year of university life can feel at times like the movie "Groundhog Day" - with many of the same annual events repeated endlessly. The core campus buildings have been there for generations, the calendar is marked by the same annual traditions and events, and students remain 20ish years old. Often the only giveaway to the age of a photo is the subjects' clothing, hairstyles and era of technology present in the image.
Move-in, Homecoming, Commencement, repeat.
Jeff Miller has been around this merry-go-round 31 times (and counting) at the UW-Madison. But glance at his three-plus decade body of work and there is not a repeated loop of the same photos with smaller laptops and bigger trees. He consistently finds fresh, surprising and storytelling moments. (And preserves them for history with arguably the best caption writing in UPAA!)
Jeff recently had a brief zoom meeting with the UPAA Blog editor in which he revisited three of his photos spanning nearly 20 years. The photos represented scenarios common to the work of any higher ed photographer on any campus--photos of students studying on the quad, move-in day, and yet another event or reception. In each situation, Jeff could have taken a "phone it in" approach but instead made unique and memorable photos that exceeded expectations. What follows is Jeff's shared insight about how he got his brain into the right space to see each moment.
INSIGHT #1: Be true to yourself--photograph what you feel.
"I was fortunate enough early in my career to do a whole lot of intensive workshops with several renowned photographers," Jeff says. "I'm kind of a workshop junkie." However, Jeff adds: "Not necessarily technical skills-based workshops like lighting, workflow and digital asset management--topics that are needed and often directly related to the demands of job of a university photographer. What I remain interested in are workshops that impact my visual thinking more than learning a specific tech skill.”
Jeff says the workshop that had the most lasting fundamental impact on him was in the early 1990s when he participated in "The Next Step" with National Geographic photographer Sam Abell at Santa Fe Workshops. (Abell was a presenter at the 2018 UPAA Symposium at Wake Forest and still hosts this workshop.)
(photo by Autumn Driscoll) Sam Abell speaks at the 2018 UPAA Symposium at Wake Forest. “Photography in the field is a process of creation, of thought and technique. But ultimately it’s an act of imaginatively seeing from within yourself.” -Sam Abell
Jeff recalls his work in the late 1990s as becoming very designer-friendly, with loose framing and multiple versions of the same scene. He remembers Abell saying something to the effect of: “That's all well and good but this workshop is about your vision and I want you to make a pictures that are of the moment.”
That advice remained in Jeff's mind years later, when in May of 2002 he made the lead photo of this article, a student studying on Bascom Hill, the main quad of the UW-Madison.
“I recall it being a really nice day," Jeff says. ”One of those mild Spring days following Winter's long haul...when there are a bazillion people out enjoying the milder weather again." One student's red hair initially caught Jeff’s eye, but he remembers also connecting with the feeling of the moment. “I was trying to go for something stripped down to the emotional feeling of laying in the grass studying, so I physically put myself and my camera down to the level of the grass.”
(top photo by Matt Cashore, bottom photo by Jeff Miller) Just about any higher ed photographer has the opportunity to make an image similar to the top photo, featuring students on a quad with a well-known campus building or landmark in the scene. Jeff Miller's bottom photo strips the context away and instead focuses more on the feeling of being a student laying in the grass studying.
“Yeah we have to get the branding and the location and everything else," said Jeff. "At the time, I was starting to work red accents into a lot of my photos as the color is part of the branding for the UW-Madison. The thing that first drew me into the scene was the student's red hair...so in a way I was actually still in the mode of fulfilling my university communication role. But I initially chose to focus on the feeling of the moment when making that picture as I was making it as much for myself as for anyone else. Trust your own intuition and just make pictures you’re passionate about.” Jeff adds, "Over the years this photograph ended up being prominently featured in several campus publications and I think it's because the image communicates something more visceral."
INSIGHT #2: Slow yourself down and regroup.
(photo by Jeff Miller) Brimming from a laundry cart of Derek Shimeck's belongings, a cutout promotional image of actor Will Ferrell from the movie "Land of the Lost" seems to summarize the general mood of the day as family members and friends help new students move into Witte Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Aug. 27, 2009. Nearly 6,500 students are expected to move into 17 residential housing facilities on campus Aug. 25, 27 and 28. Shimeck, of Rhinelander, Wis., previously worked in a movie theater.
“Truth be told, move-in is one of my least favorite annual activities to photograph,” Jeff admits. "It's almost always a mega-hot steamy and sweaty day, there are long lines and everyone's just a little stressed and on edge. I believe the experience is often anything but what I think a lot of people want to see from photos of move-in, which is this excitement and this new beginning. I look for that feeling but it can sometimes be hard to find amid the stress."
Jeff's advice when things don't feel like they're coming together easily is a variation on Sam Abell's "compose and wait" philosophy: "Slow yourself down for a minute and regroup."
“Sometimes it’s a matter of checking yourself and if you’re tired or you’re frustrated or you’re not getting what you want," says Jeff, "Just stop for a moment...literally take a break, stop making pictures and stop trying to chase something...It is very easy as a photographer to get wagged by an event when you're not focused. You're always trying to catch up to a moment versus being centered enough to anticipate the moment coming to you. If you’re not seeing things, maybe hit the pause button for a minute and let yourself regroup.”
Jeff recalls he was in the latter hours of a long day when he saw the Will Ferrell cutout and thought it captured the feeling of stressed-out people on move-in day. Making the photo in a tight space with a fisheye lens amplified the chaos.
“I don’t know if this photo would ever make it into a traditional recruiting brochure but I do stand behind the feeling that it tells one angle of a story about move-in," says Jeff, adding, "and editorial storytelling is a lot of what my office does."
INSIGHT #3: You never know when your institutional knowledge will come in handy.
(photo by Jeff Miller) UW-Madison mascot Bucky Badger welcomes UW-Madison Chancellor Emerita Donna E. Shalala back to Olin House, the official residence of the UW-Madison Chancellor at 130 N. Prospect Ave., during a tailgate party prior to an early-autumn home football game at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Sept. 8, 2018. Shalala, who served as UW-Madison Chancellor from 1988-1993, returned to campus for the honor of being inducted into the UW Athletic Hall of Fame the day before.
“This is a photo I wasn’t prepared for at all and had little to do with the reason I was present to photograph the event," Jeff notes. "The job that day was to make general photos of a VIP tailgate event at the official residence of the UW-Madison Chancellor for invitational cards promoting future events...something I had already done twice before."
“I was kind of phoning it in that day," Jeff recalls. "This was my third time covering such an event and I still had murky direction from the event organizer about the visual needs. It felt like the more content that I delivered for this project, the more the event organizer narrowed in on what she didn't want for the note cards."
Unexpectedly, former UW-Madison Chancellor Donna Shalala arrived at the event and Jeff says he perked up and just started paying attention. While Shalala was 25 years beyond her time as the UW-Madison Chancellor, (Jeff photographed Shalala late in her tenure.) she remains well-remembered and regarded by many in the university community. “Donna Shalala had the biggest most infectious personality with students and loved engaging with our campus mascot Bucky Badger," Jeff recalls.
When the Bucky Badger mascot also recognized Shalala and knelt down to greet her, Jeff says, “I just mashed the shutter button.” After the event, Jeff texted his director about the chance sighting and his office followed up with a short news story about the former Chancellor's visit from a perspective few others had. “It was me connecting all the dots...I had the institutional awareness of who Shalala was and the relevance and importance...Obviously you have to photograph what people need and what your job is, but when you can deliver more than that, more than what people expect…that’s a really fun place to be.”
"Where do they send bad light? To prism!" Thanks for reading the blog. The goal of the UPAA blog is to provide tips and inspiration for university photographers from university photographers...so we need your help! Give suggestions, feedback or submit articles to editor Matt Cashore, firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow UPAA on Instagram, too!