(Not) being John Malkovich

Sandro Miller, photo by Marcin Mięsak

Think the world populated by the hordes of Malkoviches, as glimpsed in Spike Jonze’s 1999 cult classic, was a one-off folly? Think again. With the help of the ever-elusive actor, Sandro Miller decided to recreate some of the most iconic portraits in the history of photography and there is only one way to describe the experience: Malkovich Malkovich. Malkovich? Malkovich!

Let’s talk about Piss Christ by Andres Serrano. Or let’s not, for as they say – the clue is in the title. “Serrano put a crucifix in his own urine, but of course I couldn’t do that with John” – says Sandro Miller and everyone breathes out with relief. We had this full-sized crucifix built and we shot him crucified. Then I put the print of the shot in a huge fish tank and, trying to stay true to what Serrano did, I filled it up with my urine, which I have been saving for 3 weeks. I had to stick a straw in it to blow bubbles!” And to think that some people still find this job glamorous.

Although mostly self-taught, the creator of Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters, which just opened at the Tumult gallery in Toruń, has been photographing people all his life; be it a Spanish matador Joselito or Cuban athletes. And then, something happened: “Four years ago I came down with cancer” ­– he admits openly. “I was going through a moment in my life when I didn’t know if I would ever return to photography. I started to think about my inspirations and all the master photographers who really, really, really influenced me. I guess I just wanted to say thank you.” In order to do that, he came up with a rather unusual idea. And when you come up with a rather unusual idea, who ya gonna call? That is, right after the new female Ghostbusters?

Sandro Miller's Camerimage exhibition, photo by Sylwester Rozmiarek
Sandro Miller’s Camerimage exhibition, photo by Sylwester Rozmiarek

Ever since they met over 18 years ago during a photo shoot for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, Sandro Miller and John Malkovich have worked together on many projects, including a Nikon ad campaign and Miller’s short films: Malkovich Butterflies and Ecstasy. “When John saw the portraits I took of him, he just fell in love with them. He thought I captured him in a way he has never been captured before. We knew from that very moment this is going to be an on-going, continuous collaboration.” – admits Miller. “He has always been open to my ideas. He would walk into my studio and be this beautiful white canvas that says: paint on me. Is there anything off-limits for John? If there is, I haven’t found it yet.” Not many did. After all, the guy did say yes to Transformers 3, didn’t he?

In 2012, Miller and Malkovich set out to complete a series of 41 images by such renowned photographers as Irving Penn, Dorothea Lange, Robert Mapplethorpe, Annie Leibovitz and many others. Their secret to success: painstaking attention to detail. “There wasn’t any room for mistake. When you know that people are going to put these images side by side… you really have to get it right. I just had to kill it – otherwise, I could have easily become a laughing stock of the industry. I researched every single image – I would google it, learn its history, I would look at the images that were shot before and after to see where the photographer was at that day. I only had John for 5 days – I couldn’t try to figure all this out while he was there.

Arthur Sasse _ Albert Einstein Sticking Out His Tongue (1951), 2014
Arthur Sasse _ Albert Einstein Sticking Out His Tongue (1951), 2014
Bert Stern _ Marilyn in Pink Roses (from The Last Session, 1962), 2014
Bert Stern _ Marilyn in Pink Roses (from The Last Session, 1962), 2014

Such emphasis on getting it right brought on some interesting discoveries – after spending 9 months dissecting every part of the photos with his team of experts, Sandro found out that Arthur Sasse’s iconic shot of Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue was taken… in a London cab and that Bert Stern used to loosen Marilyn up with martinis. Yep – that’s what professionals used to do in the 1960s. “When he took that picture it was 3 a.m. in the morning – there were probably some very flirtatious moments going on when she took off her top and put that scarf in front of her breasts. So when we shot I became Bert Stern and all of a sudden, in a second, John would just become Marilyn Monroe. Become Migrant Mother. Become Salvador Dalí.” Forget eating an imaginary apple – now that’s an acting exercise.

The viewers might look at these photos and say: Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich. But it’s also about these very important photographs” – states art educator Terry Barrett and he might well have a point. “Sandro is a humble guy, but I think he is underappreciated. He is renewing interest in some very important images that we tend to forget because we are a throw-away society.” That’s right – as Miller puts it, the series was created to encourage people to go back and re-discover the originals. “These images have continued to move me throughout my whole career. I may have seen those shots a hundred times and if I was to open a book today and see Irving Penn’s Picasso, my knees would still get weak. So many of us think that we have this potential in our lives that we want to reach. I don’t believe in that anymore – if we reach further and try harder we can do anything we want.” Or be anyone we want. After all, what’s the fun in being just John Malkovich?

Marta Bałaga

Sandro Miller's Camerimage exhibition official poster

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