Ken Miller Talks Photography

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Ken Miller is a writer, editor, consultant and curator. After spending six years editing Tokion, he has moved on to curatorial consulting and curating. One of the things I find most interesting is that his projects tend to be serious in scope and multi-faceted. His book project Shoot: Photography of the Moment (Rizzoli) featured work by many the most interesting photographers of the “snapshot” aesthetic, from Nan Goldin all the way on to Dash Snow. The book project was supported by events and exhibitions around the world, including at the New Museum in New York and the Tate Modern in London. His most recent project, Photography, is an exhibit of new work by six major photographers, all shot on a new digital SLR produced by Fujifilm. Exhibited last year in Milan and Tokyo, it goes up this week at Aperture in New York. I asked Ken a few questions about how he came to be putting together these eclectic projects and about how he draws a straight line from Stephen Shore to Terry Richardson.

Skye Parrott: Tell me a little about your background. How did you grow up? Who were your aesthetic influences? What did your parents do? Did you go to art school?

Ken Miller: I grew up in Brooklyn, and I got into photography pretty young (specifically Nan and Daido Moriyama.) I studied art and photo in high school and college, but ended up majoring in film. After working as a camera assistant for a few years, I realized I completely hated it, and switched to writing. My parents were not artists, but were involved in the arts and definitely influences. My father was a lawyer who travelled all over the world in the ’50s-’80s. He was both incredibly cool and super un-hip. (He saw either the Velvet Underground or the Grateful Dead in 1967, but could never remember which and didn’t like them anyway.) My mother is from Chile, which is where they met. She’s a really good classical guitarist and still very involved in dance.

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Photograph by Ryan McGinley, image courtesy of the artist
Skye: When I first met you, now a lot of years ago, you were working as the editor at Tokion. How did your career evolve from there? Was this where you imagined it going when you started out?

Ken: I’ve never really been daring enough to imagine where my ‘career’ would be going, but I’m pretty happy with where it has ended up. I edited Tokion for about seven years – doing an independent magazine was awesome and an incredible learning experience (as I’m sure you know). It’s creatively rewarding but also provides an intensive practical education. Before working on Tokion, I had done a lot of writing (including some travel books), but as I worked on the magazine, I realized I preferred working with images instead of words, and that I really loved working with artists and photographers. So trying to organize exhibitions and artbooks was a natural next step.

Skye: know you have been doing a lot of curating, as well as a book project. What else are you doing these days?

Ken: Yeah, I’ve done three books in the last five years – art, photo and fashion. Most of the exhibitions have grown out of the books. The incredible part of organizing the exhibitions is that you get to meet people who you will probably end up putting in your next exhibition. It’s great. Right now, I’m wrapping up these Photography exhibitions, which have been presented in Milan, Tokyo and now New York. And I’m working on another exhibition project for the fall…

Skye: Can you tell me a little about this show and how it came about. Is it an idea you’ve had in mind for a while or something you put together specifically for this project?

Ken: Last year, I did an exhibition called Pictures at a fashion space in Tokyo. It was honestly one of my favorite shows I’ve ever done – abstract photos by Marcelo Gomes, Sam Falls, Mariah Robertson and Taisuke Koyama. People from Fujifilm stopped by and showed me these new cameras they’ve produced, which are digital versions of classic SLR cameras. They asked if I would ask some photographers to shoot with them. The response from the photographers was really positive, so the exhibition came together pretty quickly. What I think is interesting is how, despite the photographers all using the same tools, the photos are very personal and individual.

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Photograph by Terry Richardson, courtesy of the artist

Skye: Obviously this is an amazing group of photographers you’ve brought together for this, but I almost feel it’s two separate groups that are being melded into one, so I’m curious about how you made the decisions that brought them together. What was the logic behind the selection of these specific artists? What do you feel unifies all their work?

Ken: I think of it less as two groups and more of a spectrum, with some common qualities. (For example, people don’t think of him this way because of his commercial work, but there is a lot of Terry’s work that overlaps with Martin Parr or Nan Goldin.) But I wanted the photographers to have enough common ground to overlap and fit comfortably in a show together, while showing a range of possibilities. So you have Eggleston, who represents the beginning of fine art color photography; Shore, who turned snapshots into art; Nan, who elevated personal diaristic photography; Parr, who satyrically documents consumer images; Terry, who combines several of those developments into commercial and fashion images; and Ryan, who is such a romantic figure and pretty much a creative icon for our current generation.

Skye: How do you see your role as a curator?

Ken: Basically, I come up with the basic general idea for a show, then just help nudge it along until it’s done. The reality isn’t very romantic – I sometimes joke that I’m a professional nag….!

Skye: Can you tell me a little about the process of putting this show together? How do you work with the artists to select the work? Was the work created by the artists specifically for this show or was it work that they pulled out of what they are currently working on?

Ken: All of the work was created specifically for the show. I did not give any direction regarding what they should shoot, since it seemed most natural for them to continue in their normal daily creative practice. The editing process varied from artist to artist (as it always does). Some gave me everything they shot and let me edit (with their final approval). Some only gave me what they were comfortable showing.

Skye: What projects are you currently working on beyond this? What would you like to be working on?

Ken: Rizzoli has been asking about doing another book, but I needed a break after the Opening Ceremony book. So for now, this is it!

Photography, an exhibition of new work by William Eggleston, Nan Goldin, Ryan McGinley, Martin Parr, Terry Richardson, and Stephen Shore opens on Thursday, January 31 from 6-9 pm at Aperture, 547 W. 27 St, NYC, where it will be on view through February 9.

Top photograph by William Eggleston, courtesy of the artist

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