Miller Mobley, now 24, has established his career twice: first in Alabama, and most recently in New York City, where he has landed the editorial clients on his wish list one after another, including TIME, New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, and The Hollywood Reporter. Now he’s pursuing advertising clients, too.
Mobley is focused, driven—and courageous. By the age of 21, he had taught himself portraiture and was making a good living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, shooting for local and regional clients. He had also signed on with Redux Pictures for assignments around the Southeast from national magazines. “Every picture in his portfolio knocked my socks off,” says Redux principal Marcel Saba.
Mobley started dreaming about making it in New York City. “So I tell my wife, ‘I think we should give it a shot. Alabama will always be here.’” They arrived in February 2011 with a year’s worth of rent saved up. “I worried, but I knew I wouldn’t have to live under a bridge,” he says. (To hear how he developed relationships with clients, first locally, and then in New York City, click the Watch Video link above.)
Mobley had his sights on celebrity portrait work, and a wish list of clients. One was The Hollywood Reporter Photo Director Jennifer Laski.
“The subject line of his e-mail was ‘My dream client to work for,’” Laski recalls. “That got my attention. Then I clicked on it and the work was beautiful.” But, she adds, “I can’t just try a new person out on a celebrity and have them embarrass me. I have to make sure they know how to behave, how to act around celebrities.”
She told him to come see her if he was ever in Los Angeles.
“So I scheduled a flight to LA ,” he says. But Laski was busy, and Mobley was on his way back to the airport for his return flight several days later when she finally sent him an e-mail saying she had 15 minutes to see him. “I turned the car around. I didn’t care if I missed the flight,” he says.
“He was so polite and respectful,” Laski says. “That’s really important to me. I don’t deal with the divas.” She soon hired him to shoot Joe Scarborough, host of the MSNBC program Morning Joe. The images, Laski says, “were beautiful, and fun. When someone nails it on the first shoot, they’re golden with me.”
Mobley has been shooting celebrity after celebrity for The Hollywood Reporter ever since. “That changes the way [potential clients] look at you. They think you can handle high pressure, and bigger assignments. Work started pouring in from more clients.”
Of course, Mobley didn’t spring fully formed into the offices of The Hollywood Reporter. He was a studio art student at The University of Alabama when a teacher introduced him to Avedon’s In the American West work. “I realized, this is what I want to do: authentic portraits, dramatic portraits.”
Soon he was driving around Alabama in search of subjects in rural towns, and failing most of his classes. “I walked up and asked people, ‘Would you like to have your portrait taken?’”
He quit college, and started showing his work to art directors and photo editors in Birmingham, Alabama, and Atlanta. “I wasn’t good at all, but I was confident, and naive,” Mobley says. “Even though I would look back now and be embarrassed [by that early work], I made those relationships early on, and a lot of people saw my transformation.”
To get the meetings, he e-mailed clients saying he was in town, even though he wasn’t. As soon as someone invited him over, he got in the car and drove—sometimes for hours—to see them. “The main thing was getting in the door, and building a relationship. The meeting is just the beginning.”
The personal projects he shot at the time provided the steady supply of new work that he needed to keep his name in front of potential clients. “I can’t just annoy people. I needed a reason to e-mail them every two months.”
At first, he shot only with natural light. Then he started experimenting with lighting after his grandmother gave him a book by Leibovitz. “I researched what kind of lighting she used, then I bought the lighting, and taught myself how to use it.”
And he kept shooting personal projects. “I would do the weirdest things,” he says. A series of portraits of Mormon missionaries opened the doors for him in New York City, for instance. He went online to Mormon.org, requested a visit from some missionaries and explained that he wanted to photograph them. “Next thing I know three missionaries are knocking on my door.”
He entered the portraits in the American Photography competition. Two of the portraits were selected for American Photography 28. Mobley flew to New York City for the launch party, where he met a photo editor who referred him to Redux.
Mobley relocated to New York City despite a warning from Marcel Saba that the city is a crowded market for photographers. But Mobley took the same approach that had worked for him in Alabama. “I started all over again. I met with clients, I went to portfolio reviews.”
At first, clients weren’t enthusiastic. Many thought his work was too dark, and too heavily retouched, according to Saba. “I got fed up with it,” Mobley says.
“I started really studying editorial portraits—who’s shooting what, what’s out there.” Among those whose work he studied were Robert Maxwell, Dan Winters and Peter Yang.
To work on his technique and style, he started another personal project, photographing people in Alabama’s Black Belt region. And he continued shooting personal work in New York City. “Anybody coming through town, I would reach out to take their portrait: musicians, designers, friends—anyone and everyone I could to perfect my portraits and lighting.”
Mobley had been in New York City just over a year when he got his first Hollywood Reporter assignment. That led to an assignment from TIME magazine to shoot a CEO portrait. Then he got a call from Jonathan Woods, TIME’s online photo director, to shoot portraits in four different cities for an online feature about genetic sequencing. The budget was small, the travel seemed onerous and Mobley was busy. “I ask myself three questions before I take a job: Is there a good connection? Can I make something good? Is the money good? If the answer is yes to two of those questions, I take it.”
Mobley took the job, and two weeks after he completed it, Kira Pollack [director of photography for TIME] called. “I about fell out of my chair,” Mobley says. “She said they had decided to turn the genome story into a cover story for the magazine, and would I shoot the cover?” His first TIME cover appeared on the December 24 issue. “It was a very good Christmas,” Mobley says.