Anybody who knows my work knows Dillon Miller. In fact, I have a hunch that newcomers come to my work often because of Dillon.
They may not know him by name. He's never booked an ad campaign. He's not signed with an agency. In the male modeling world, such as it is, he's hardly scratched the surface—his own body of work primarily made up of pictures he and I have made in the last 3 years. In short, this amateur model from small-town Oregon is no professional. Yet anybody who looks at him can see a spark of something special...
In my work, Dillon Miller is a constant and recognizable presence. He's been featured in over 6 sessions and thousands of images (most obviously archived) shot during my time here in Portland, an enormous amount for any photographer. And no doubt Dillon, too, deserves some of the credit for my own growth as a photographer and professional these past few years. He shows talent in a number of genres, in conceptual photography as well as fashion. He's asked about often—by followers, by anon on Tumblr, by other models wanting someone to work alongside; and even by professionals, such as AJ Ford and Matt Lambert.
Dillon himself was newly 18 when I discovered him. He was living in a small town outside Eugene, OR. He was enthusiastic and humble, characteristics that have remained at the fore, and eager to collaborate. What work he did have clearly displayed the spark I mentioned above.
But what is this spark? How does it show itself—beyond the pale of bone structure? Surely you've seen, as well as I have, the numberless interviews with models who cite "good genes" as the thing they're most grateful for. (And in this business, it's hard to argue the point...)
Is it interesting to know that—in the photograph above—I asked Dillon whether or not he could cry on command? This was the result.
I suppose what I mean is that, lately, I've been wondering whether or not I ever see my subjects clearly. About whether or not photography is truly about seeing at all. The egoist photographer (and there are many) will loudly object to the simple suggestion that their portraits are constructions, that they reveal nothing but their own interpretation of the subject. Like myself, they no doubt conduct interviews to begin the shooting session; and they insist that whatever they may glean from such interviews makes its way into the final shot. Some photographers even use the term, "documentarian," that their photographs are a factual record.
Now please don't misunderstand. I'm not saying that the artful construction is not its own kind of factual record. Nor am I saying that there isn't such a thing as a documentary photographer. Anybody with a lick of sense can track the hairsbreadth difference between photo-journalism and art or fashion photography.
Rather, I'm thinking of what's illustrated by, say, Canon Australia's feature, The Lab Decoy, from November of this year, which featured 6 portrait photographers being given 6 different stories about the same man, their subject. Unsurprisingly, their sessions result in 6 very different portraits, all shaped by their interpretation of their subject and his story. Canon insists "A photograph is shaped more by the person behind the camera than by what's in front of it," and I completely agree.
I am thinking also of a 2012 documentary film called "The Act of Killing," in which director, Joshua Oppenheimer, challenged former Indonesian death-squad leaders to reenact their mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wished, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers. Hundreds of extras, fake blood, all made regular appearance. The film features no 1960's-period historicizing nor any footage from the time; Oppenheimer calls it "a documentary of the imagination." And it made New Yorker critic, Anthony Lane, rightly ask: "would a measure of investigation have spoiled it? We hear that [the film's subject] personally exterminated a thousand people. Does that figure stand up, and does it not matter more than his dawning remorse?"
While both rather extreme examples, the Canon experiment and the film bring the question of documentary art and genre into sharp relief. And while the conventions of documentary photography may save it from some of this questioning—I can't imagine a photojournalist artfully applying blood in all the right places to a war refugee—I don't think the conventions of genre allows you to escape deep-questioning totally. How many times have documentary photographers staged their shots? Added or removed elements in post-processing?
I suppose I'm saying that genre is only as useful—or authoritative—as far as it goes, which is not very far. Photography, less than other art forms, allows for its genre conventions to guide its consumption still that much less: the average viewer of a picture doesn't give a shit and will simply look.
They see, as if through a glass as darkly as the photographer sees, perhaps more or less muddled by the justifications we can sometimes load our work and practice with. Or perhaps, while no less true, our justifications are at least essential.
For me, the answer is no. Photography is not about seeing truly. As author, William Maxwell, said about writing non-fiction, "we lie with every breath we draw.” To me it's as plain for my work as for the documentarian or the photojournalist working at the Times—whatever you may call yourself, however you might define your work. We're all liars here. No picture escapes this fact or elevates itself above this scrutiny.
So let's return to Dillon and the picture used to title the post. It's a candid shot, from my very first session with Dillon back in August of 2013. I am drawn to this photograph. Its perspective. The dynamics of the lattice-like frame behind our Dillon. The dirt on his fingers, how they're reminiscent of freckles. Nipples, almost-feathered hair. The pinpoint scar underneath his eye. It's as close to un-staged as my camera has seen him. Certainly not posed. I can't remember: was he between outfits at this moment? had he just climbed down off of the wooden frame you see in the background? It's a 35mm shot, I know that much. But otherwise, its particular details escape me.
So I asked Dillon for his take on the photograph. He said: "This is me lost in thought. I always rub my fingers or my ear when my mind drifts. Or when I don't know what to say, when I am thinking of being in another time or place."
Now isn't that a story you'd like to see?