Artist Profile: Rich Miller, Photographer

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman March 15, 2015 16:39


This profile was part of a five-article feature called “The Age of Creativity” that appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Friends and Neighbors Magazine. Featured artists shared how they found their focus, the challenges and rewards of their art, and their advice to other boomers and seniors ready to explore creative callings. For FAN’s listing of creativity resources in the foothills, see Creative Outlets: Art Classes, Writing Groups & Much More.


fn00899-rich-main-photo-edited-(not)Would you hire a meat cutter to take your wedding photographs?

More than 1,500 Mother Lode couples have done just that. Rich Miller has also shot  rodeo bulls and broncs, forest fires and football games, more than 20 phonebook covers, 30 years of Sierra Repertory Theatre actors, scores of scantily clad women on silk sheets and yes, photos for this very magazine – but not those racy sheet shots.

All that from a butcher turned artist.

For more than 20 years Miller worked at grocery store meat departments in both his native Southern California and in the Sonora area, where he’s lived since 1971. At age 40, his back gave out, a work-related condition that drew an offer of 90 percent state disability pay for life. The gravy train had pulled in, but Miller didn’t climb aboard.

“For me, that would have been the beginning of a downward spiral,” he says. “I just couldn’t imagine doing nothing.”

So he left the cash on the table and reached for a camera.

“Photography added a new dimension to my life,” says Miller, 69. “It’s that creative element, and it’s a personal outlet. What’s that saying? ‘It opens up the inner you.’ ”

Miller fell for photography early, after a trip to Alaska with a Kodak Instamatic. He was still shooting when he moved to Sonora, and in 1981 signed on with Union Democrat publisher Harvey McGee to photograph high school football games.

Armed with a Nikkormat, Miller wedged the games in between meat-counter shifts. At $50 an assignment, it was an inauspicious start, but it was a start. By the time Miller was ready to switch careers, photography studio owner Lynne Jerome had seen his work and was ready to hire him. It was, he says, “the best move I ever made.”

Working for Jerome, he shot the first of more than 1,500 weddings. And yes, Miller has stories: He’s seen a marriage consummated between ceremony and reception, a groom cheat with the maid of honor, a bride vomit while coming up the aisle and a bride’s father punch out his new son-in-law.

But the drama in Miller’s life extends beyond nuptials. For more than 30 years he has been the Mother Lode Roundup rodeo’s official photographer. A former motorcycle racer, he thrives on the danger.

“Once I climbed the fence, and a bronc turned around and nailed me with both hooves,” he grins. “Another time a bull lifted me up with one horn and threw me out of the arena.”

In 1993, Miller started his own photography business in a barn on the Tuolumne-area property he and wife Carol bought in 1972. “We moved the sheep and goats, took out the hay and made it a studio,” he says.

Carol, a teacher, encouraged the career move. Son Beau and daughter Autumn, then completing high school, knew their dad’s passion and were excited.

Weddings still paid the bills, but later a new market opened up: “boudoir photography” – intimate shots of women, often intended as gifts for boyfriends, fiancés or husbands.

Miller learned the ropes by helping a photographer friend who shot for Victoria’s Secret, and the sexy shots are now a key part of his business. His secret?

“Making women comfortable in the studio, then making them look their best and feel good about themselves,” he says.

Just don’t expect any salacious stories from Miller, who guards his client list and stays mum on details.

Advances in computer technology steepened his learning curve – he’s mastered Photoshop and Lightroom – while helping clients of any age or state of undress mercifully shed years, pounds and wrinkles.

Be it portraits, landscapes, macro, action shots or anything else, digital technology has broadened the horizon. “It’s really made photography an art,” he adds.

In years to come, Miller may not mix it up with broncs and bulls as much. But he remains wary of that “downward spiral,” so retirement is not in the cards.

“And when you’re doing what you love, it’s not really a job,” he points out.

His advice to a boomer or senior exploring photography as a possible career? “It doesn’t matter if you’re 40, 50 or even 60,” says Miller. “I’d go for it.

“But don’t give up everything else all at once,” he cautions. “Make sure there’s a market out there. Make sure someone will pay for what you do.”

Finally, don’t get complacent.

His grandchildren, ages one to four, are Miller’s latest and favorite subjects. And whether he’s focusing on grandkids, cowboys, or brides and grooms, Miller wants those shots to be as good as possible.

“I’m still studying and I’m still learning,” he says. “My goal is always to become a better photographer.”

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine
Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman March 15, 2015 16:39
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