There are a lot of talented snowboard photographers that slog through snow-covered cities or wade through knee-deep powder so they can capture images of your favorite riders. However, it’s exceedingly rare that snowboard photographers transcend the functionality of capturing action photos and enter the realm of artist. Andrew Miller, a Southern California native who had aspirations of becoming a professional snowboarder before transitioning to full-time photographer is one of the few that is creating a uniquely recognizable, visual style.
Utilizing the often awe-inspiring terrain that his adventures take him to, Miller has found a way to capture the immensity of landscapes while infusing minimalist action. Miller’s photos can evoke an emotional response, even when the rider is engaged in the simplest of maneuvers, something like a turn can become visceral for the viewer. For the last several years Miller has been scouring the globe with some of the best big mountain riders on the planet, from shooting Jeremy Jones in the Himalaya or chasing Forrest Shearer through the Wasatch, Miller has traveled from range to range perfecting his art. I caught up with him to talk about his transition from aspiring pro to photographer, shooting in the Himalaya, and what it takes to make it as a full-time lensman in the digital age.
So you initially had dreams of becoming a pro snowboarder. How did you get into snowboarding?
I grew up in Southern California, the small town of Grand Terrace to be exact. Around 45 minutes to the beach and 45 minutes to mountains and Big Bear. I started skateboarding and surfing pretty early on and eventually, my Dad took me skiing for the first time at Snow Valley. I tried that for a year and remember seeing some guys snowboarding. Instantly I wanted to do that instead of skiing and I switched over that next season. I was maybe around six or seven at the time. The dreams of being pro didn’t really happen until middle school. I ended up getting on flow for a few different companies and a local shop. I still vividly remember the phone call I got from the local Analog, Anon, and Burton rep asking me if I wanted to ride some of their stuff. I was pretty heavy into USASA comps at the time and totally freaked out when I got that first box of gear. I thought I had made it. That was pretty short lived (laughs).
And then you moved to Mammoth after high school to pursue the dream, what happened?
Yeah, I took a quick college intro to laboratory sciences course right after high school and then immediately moved up to Mammoth. I was working at the small hospital lab in town drawing blood and running basic tests three days a week, snowboarding whenever I was off. Two years of grinding in the park led to a pretty bad blown out front knee and a full re-evaluation of what I wanted to do. I still wanted to be apart of things on the mountain and just naturally picked up the camera and started shooting my friends.
A lot of people focus their energy into creative pursuits when they are injured, was photography something that was always part of your life or did it really pick up during your recovery?
It had always been a small part of my life in the sense of all of my friends shooting photos and video of each other skateboarding and snowboarding through middle and high school. Pretty fond memories of doing a lot filming on small dad cams with DV tapes, making edits in camera and onto VHS. And shooting photos with cheap disposable cameras you could buy at the gas station. I took a dark room and film class in 10th grade which is when I started using my Mom’s old canon Ae-1 a bit more. This was all for fun, I never thought about making it a career, or that I could until after I got hurt.
Something must have clicked, right?
I still wanted to be out and about shredding with my friends. I had lost the desire to hit massive jumps, so being able to shoot them made me feel like I was still apart of things and in turn stoked everybody out with photos. I still remember one of my first published photos was in the Wave Rave catalog of Gabe Taylor and they gave me $25 and I was so stoked. I really didn’t know that was a way forward until I started working for a small online magazine and was getting a regular decent paycheck. From then the growth was small but every year after I started making a little more money and learning a ton about how things worked.
You ended up moving to Salt Lake and shooting contests for a while, how did that process inform your work?
It had a huge impact. I really cut my teeth and learned my camera inside and out shooting the contest circuit. I would just watch and study the bigger photographers out there shooting like Blotto and Jeff Curtes. I would see what angles they shot, what gear they used, different lenses, listen in on conversations, and watch how they would move around the course each run. Then the next day I could check their photos and event coverage on the internet and put two and two together. It was like a mini snowboard photography school for me. I learned to shoot fast, how to develop, and how to tell a visually appealing story from the day’s events.
A lot of people shoot and cover events and contests early in their careers, but most don’t develop a unique perspective in their work. Was there anything in particular you did during the time to differentiate yourself?
I think just focusing on telling a good story through an interesting gallery with a lot of variety. It’s super easy to get stuck in those same spots, same angles, and kind of slack off with just shooting the basics at a contest. I made a rule that anytime I saw a group of photographers huddled up in certain angles I would try to find something completely opposite of what they were shooting.
I really would enjoy looking through all the galleries after each event and be stoked when I had some angles nobody else did. This was really a huge learning process and I still didn’t really know what I was doing so it wasn’t until later when I left that scene that I really wanted to try and focus on developing a style. That is the biggest and hardest thing to do as a photographer. I think it’s the ultimate compliment when somebody can say that’s so and so’s photo by just looking at it. There are a few guys for me that I always know it’s their shot with just a quick glance. I feel it’s more important than ever to be able to separate yourself and have a stand out style with so much content and images at your fingertips. Unfortunately, we are in a huge quantity over quality, scroll-through state in time and you have to really have something special for people to stop, double take, or come back to that image.
You mostly rode park and ended up in Salt Lake City where there is some of the best park and street terrain in the world. How did you end up transitioning into big mountain stuff?
It was a pretty easy and quick transition actually. My first time riding in Utah was at Brighton and it had snowed your classic Utah lake effect storm with totals over two feet. The resort was empty and it completely blew my mind that there was snow like that. After that, I just rode a ton, met a lot of cool people who were already hiking around out of bounds, and eventually that lead to me building my own splitboard with Chris Coulter in his garage. Utah is really awesome in the fact that it’s so easy to get out of bounds right off the resort, so I think it was a natural progression. Also as that happened I started realizing how much more I enjoyed creating my own unique content from a day in the backcountry, a day with certain crews, or people I really enjoyed being in the mountain with vs. the craziness of the contest scene. Then came many years of getting my gear, safety, and scene dialed with avalanche courses. And I started to be really particular about who I chose to go in the mountains with.
I think one thing I really enjoy about your work is how much you use the immense nature you’re in as a subject. Is that something that is intentional? Are you trying to convey a message about the spaces you are shooting in?
At first, it wasn’t something I tried to do or even thought about. As the years progressed I started shooting bigger lines and after my first Alaska trip I started seeing and shooting things totally different. I really want to express and show the full scope of these massive lines for the viewer to really try and understand and experience the whole scene as if they were there. A few big inspirations for me and guys who really capture these type of fly on the wall style shots the best are Tero Repo, Oli Gagnon, Jeff Curley and Will Wissman. You don’t really get the full effect of this style of shooting until you open a double page spread or see a cover. I remember the first time seeing these kinds of shots from these guys and just being so blown away. I think the viewer tends to stay a little longer to appreciate the whole scene of an image like this. These days with so much information and image overload it really takes a super unique photograph to really stop somebody in their tracks and do a double take. For me, these kind of images will always do that and I hope my shots have that same effect on the viewer.
You seem to work with some big mountain heavyweights. How do you approach a project with someone like Forrest or Jeremy Jones? Is it pretty calculated in terms of objective?
Usually, those guys already have an objective in mind. I like to consider myself to have more of a journalistic photo style. I try to capture those in between, quick moments with no real set up shots. Safety is a big deal so we are always running different scenarios on each line talking about options, angles, what might work best, and comfort levels. Most of the time the best shots come from those random days exploring new places or stumbling across something cool or getting lucky with amazing light. The unexpected days are always the best and I feel most of my favorite images come from those spontaneous random sessions. More often than not the really set up days and shots are the ones you get skunked on.
Is there anyone trip in particular that stands out in terms of both the visual magnitude and creative output?
Always a hard to just pick one but I would have to go with a trip that probably has had the biggest impact on me as a person and my career which was Nepal. It was a 40-day expedition to the Himalaya with Jeremy Jones in 2013 shooting for the final movie in his Deeper, Further, Higher trilogy. It was easily the most visually and physically overwhelming month of my life. Our barbie angle was at 19,000 ft and Jeremy climbed and rode a 21,500-foot spine face just down the way from Mt. Everest. I could tell a million stories from that trip but If you have never seen it I would highly suggest checking out Higher on Netflix.
I read somewhere that you worked a part time job for a really long time before you were able to transition into a full-time photographer. What would be your advice to any up and coming photogs?
It was actually a full-time job and I was lucky to be able to work three, 12-hour shifts a week and have four days off. It’s hard now. Things are totally different, extremely saturated, and it can take a long time to crack into the industry. Kids want so much instant gratification these days. I feel hard work and consistency pay off for me. In order to really do this, especially in the snowboard industry, you have to be ok with putting in your dues. You have to really love it and it has to be your life. Be ready to endure some debt, living in the mountains is key, and really try to align yourself with people and companies that you value. Shoot as much as you can, get your photos in front of as many people as possible, don’t be scared of critiques, and most importantly be humble. If you work hard enough and your talented your time will come.
What projects are you currently working on and what can we look for in 2018?
Not going to lie, it’s kind of a wild road these days for a snowboard photographer. The industry is really changing. The quality client list is small, and you never really know what the next photo call will bring. I just started working for Jones snowboards in more of an official capacity, which I’m really excited about and honestly, I’m just hoping the season stays good here in the Sierra, so I can stay close to home. I’m looking to chase a couple abstract stories in some off the beaten path ranges here in the West. Just stoked to keep riding and shoot as much as possible. Actually maybe a little more riding and less shooting (laughs).