Full Blackout: Andrew Miller’s Photographic Journey from Socal to the Himalaya

You’d be forgiven for thinking Andrew Miller was some kind of cardio-obsessed introvert raised at 10,000 feet. He has that omnipresent stubble and interest in alpine starts. His most prominent imagery, especially as of late, has featured the biggest mountains in the world, from the Himalaya to Alaska to the Andes and Japanese Alps. His landscape-centric style speaks to a sense of space, of the grandeur and beauty and intricacy of deep backcountry environs.

But the 28-year-old was actually a latecomer to off-piste explorations. Raised in the inland Socal town of Loma Linda, Miller came up surfing, skateboarding, and riding manmade features at the diminutive Snow Valley Mountain Resort near Big Bear. It wasn’t until he moved to Salt Lake City, UT in 2008 that Miller truly began to appreciate the idea of earning your turns. And even then Miller’s first photo job saw him chasing the contest scene.

This diverse background has made Miller a photographer with perspective, one who doesn’t take the mountains for granted, who possesses the technical skills to get it done in high-pressure situations, but who also knows how to stand back and let a scene unfold rather than forcing anything. He assumes the role of quiet documentarian, a role that riders appreciate. Indeed, Miller is just coming into his own, and the 2013-14 season was truly his breakout year.

For the fourth installment of our ongoing series with the artists and photographers featured at Asymbol Gallery, we spoke to Miller about his progression from crowded contest venues to quiet mountainscapes, social media chatter, and finding a unique perspective regardless of your environs.

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frequency TSJ: How did you get started with photography?

Andrew Miller: I took your standard photo class in high school. My group of friends was into skateboarding and surfing and snowboarding, so we’d shoot photos to have something to show the class. My mom is super-artistic, she’s an art teacher at a middle school, and she teaches history. She’s a really good drawer and painter, so she’s always had this creative outlook, which naturally sparked an interest. For my 18th birthday my parents got me this really nice SLR camera. Then I moved to Mammoth [CA] and hurt my knee really bad in early 2007. It tweaked me mentally. I didn’t have health insurance at the time. I wasn’t able to really hit jumps or anything but I could still cruise on the mountains, so I naturally started getting the camera out. That was during the Grenade days, so any given day of the week you’d see all those guys lapping the park, and I’d post up and shoot photos of them. It was a way to still feel like I was a part of the scene. And then it was like “Oh, I got my first little gig,”—my first ever published photo was in one of those Wave Rave [shop] catalogs.

Then you moved to Salt Lake City?

Yeah, in the fall of 2008. My girlfriend at the time wanted to be a nurse and Salt Lake has a really good nursing program. Her brother had moved to Salt Lake the year before so we came out to visit him and scored an insane, two-foot blower powder day at Brighton. That changed everything. I grew up riding in jeans and a sweatshirt, but here it was snowing. I had no clue about powder. It definitely opened up my eyes. Even my first year at Mammoth—looking back now it’s embarrassing—but Mammoth had one of the biggest years in ‘05-‘06 and I remember being bummed that the park wasn’t up because it snowed too much.

When did you get on a splitboard and make that switch to powder riding?

When I moved to Utah I became one of the first employees of snowrev.com. They paid for two years of covering contests. That’s where I learned my chops and really got around a camera. I went to the US Open, the X Games, the Mammoth WCI, the Abominable Snow Jam up at Mt. Hood, Beanies and Bikinis down in San Diego. It definitely influenced my style now. When you cover a contest you have to show the whole story, especially if you’re the only one shooting it. You go to the US Open and Blotto [Burton staff photographer Dean Gray]’s out there, and [TransWorld SNOWboarding Content Director] Nick Hamilton, and all these guys from the big magazines. I would study where they were shooting from, what kind of bags they were running, and their camera, and style—just their whole setup. I’d look at their galleries from the event and compare my photos to theirs. To see their different perspectives helped me out a ton. After two years, though, I was over it.

In between going to the contests, I built my first splitboard with Chris Coulter in his garage. I’d come home and we’d go and hike off Brighton and go through the avalanche safety protocol. Every session I’d learn more and I started to resent having to go to contests. In 2009, we got an RV and we drove all the way up to Alaska to go to one of the first Tailgate Alaska gatherings. I was chilling with A-Rob [Aaron Robinson, R.I.P.] and there were only like 15 people there, it was awesome. I got in a helicopter for the first time with H20 Guides and was piggybacking with Standard Films, with [photographer] Jeff Curley, Kevin Jones, John Jackson and Sammy Luebke. We were doing our lines and they were doing their lines right next to us. I’d shoot our guys then I’d snipe a few shots of Kevin Jones. That was my first taste and it really opened my eyes up to what I really wanted to be doing.

How did that transition into hanging out with Jeremy Jones in the Himalayas?

Usually when you go on bigger expeditions you have time to plan it and mentally prepare for it. I met Jones in September [2013] in Chile, then he called me a week before the trip to the Himalayas for [Teton Gravity Research’s] Higher. I was really scared but I didn’t even have a chance to think about it—I just had to do it. Growing up my dad was obsessed with the Himalayas and Everest and trekking through there and climbing and all this stuff. I went and heard all these talks from [climbing legend] Ed Viesturs and David Roberts, who made that Everest iMax movie when I was 10-years-old. My dad had every single book written about Everest. I always wanted to go out there just to see it and for me to be able to go there on a snowboard trip, it really pushed me and gave me a jump start into the big leagues. It was a life changing experience for sure, even though I didn’t really get to snowboard much. It was such a good life experience, and it just so happened that we had snowboards and that it was with Jeremy Jones.

So you shot from the glacier with a long lens?

Yeah, I rented a 400mm lens. It’s funny because I love having a small kit. Like when I go tour, I’ll just take one lens. I want to have a lighter pack and to be able to shred. Sometimes it’s fun because it makes it a little more creative. Instead of having seven lenses and standing in one spot, I’m walking around or climbing those rocks to get a different perspective. It forces you to be more creative, ‘cause you can’t just sit there and zoom in and out. So that’s always been in the back of my head. But for the Jones stuff, I brought the full kit.

When I think of your photos, the ones that stand out tend to have a smaller subject. Is that a conscious decision? Or is it just sort of a product of the environments you’re shooting in?

I read early on that one of the most important things you can do as a photographer is develop your own style. So if someone sees a photo, say an image by [Tim] Zimmerman or Cole Barash or Frode [Sandbech]… maybe it’s crazy fjord with an amazing sunset, and you can be like, “Oh, that’s Frode’s shot,” without even checking the caption.

That’s the hardest thing, to be able to stand out from the pack these days. I don’t intentionally try to do that with the loose composition, but anywhere I go and anywhere I shoot I want to look for a unique angle, and sometimes if you can blend a cool scene with snowboarding, then someone who isn’t necessarily into snowboarding could look at it and appreciate it for the landscape.

Going to AK and shooting everything tight doesn’t make sense to me—I want to be able to envision myself riding the line, or to see what the guy’s doing at least. I love those shots where you see the whole track and the big turn and you can really imagine yourself doing it.

A shot that comes to mind is the one of Manuel Diaz, the Absinthe Films cover from [2014’s] Heavy Mental. It kind of has that same loose composition, but the rider is easily identifiable.

That was a lot of luck. We were in a heli circling and a couple frames before, right when he was about to make that big, nice turn, we were a little bit closer to the face, so it didn’t look as steep and the composition wasn’t totally right. I’ve talked about this a bunch with Oli [Gagnon] and he told me when he shoots out of the heli he blacks out, and doesn’t know what’s going on, and it’s totally true. You’re so worried about your shutter burst rate—you only have so many frames before your camera shuts down to process the images. I remember the first time shooting out of the heli I was firing away and then all of a sudden it was, “My camera’s not working, what’s going on?”

You’ve really got to hold onto your shots and wait for those right moments, and the heli’s going in circles and it’s windy and cold and you’re hanging out of the thing… it’s full blackout. You just hope that you’re in focus.

That Manuel shot was such a heavy strike mission, we were only in AK for 48 hours. I got eight-hours of notice and booted up to AK. We got in at noon and were in the heli for an evening session. It’s a very fitting movie title, “Heavy Mental,” because AK just sucks it all out of you. We took our gear off after that day and people just immediately passed out. I woke up in the middle of the night, loaded my photos and saw that image, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited. I was nervous to show people, especially [Justin] Hostynek, because I didn’t know him super well. So I showed Manuel and he was super excited. Then I showed Hostynek and the first thing he said was, “I want a print of this for my house.”

So that photo, I wasn’t trying to shoot wide or anything, I was just full blackout mode and trying to keep Manuel inside the frame.

It’s like riding a big line, kind of. You scope, you plan and by the time you drop in you have this idea, but then it just happens. Instincts take over. But all the prior experience kicks in to make sure you ride it right, or shoot it well.

That’s a great parallel. I just want so bad to get a good shot because these dudes are risking their lives and putting themselves in danger, counting on us to be able to do our jobs. This year I’ve had the most opportunities ever with the highest caliber guys in the industry, so I feel like I have this bit of a pressure—a good pressure—on myself to produce. I know that I’m good enough to do it, and I just want to go to get that extra angle, or to get another shot, or to not be scared to tell the heli pilot, “Maybe we should try this.” It feels good to me to have gotten to that capability and confidence and mental vision to know when a shot is going to work, or if it’s a sketchy line that isn’t worth it in my mind, to let the rider know.

Sometimes riders will ask me what I think and I will give them feedback, but I never want to pressure them into anything. That’s their job to decide what to ride—I’m just here to document it. It was cool working with a bunch of different people this year, in particular Blair [Habenicht] has a good eye. He looks at stuff he knows is going to be a good photo or a good feature. When we were in BC we would cruise up to something with a bunch of people, knowing it was going to be hectic, and I’d be shooting two guys over here and when they were done it’d become Blair’s turn and he’d be like, “Alright Andrew I’m going to hit this little pillow drop and kind of tap this tree. I walked around the whole perimeter and I made X’s for different possible angles that you could check out.” And I’m like, “Are you kidding me? That’s tight dude.”

He’s on the same page of thinking, like I’m going to do this trick because I want to do it off this feature, but I also think it’s also going to be a good photo. He’s thinking through my eyes and it’s awesome.

It’s nice when riders have that vision.

It’s kind of funny to say it, but everyone these days, with Instagram, they just wanna shoot everything, too. If anything it’s helping the athletes to think about photos a little more because they’re trying to find a cool angle to shoot from with their phones. Some photographers get really pissed about that stuff, but I don’t really care, at the end of the day. I guess I’m pretty mellow and don’t like to cause a fuss, I like to let the guys do their thing and just document it.

Sometimes, someone will hit something and you’ll take a photo and think like, “Oh, that was kind of cool,” and then one of the riders will be up on the top like, “I just got the sickest shot ever!” And you’ll be like, “There’s no way this dude has a better angle than I did, because I’ll be so bummed right now.” Whether any photographer will admit it or not, I’m sure that’s happened more than a couple times. If anything it’s like, okay man, I can’t let them one-up me. It’s funny, it’s changed the dynamic.

So what’s on for this winter—where are you going, and how do you see yourself developing further as a photographer?

I’ve learned a lot about myself this past year, a lot about photography, and a lot about the business end of things as well. The trip to the Himalayas with Jeremy was a big one. But I want people to see me as a well-rounded photographer. I don’t want people to see it and just think, “Oh, he’s some gnarly mountaineer dude.” I don’t want to be known as that guy that’s always rappelling off stuff, or ice-climbing, or that I have my crampons in my bag at all times. I know how to do rope work, but man, I came from Bear Mountain, so sometimes I want to go shoot dudes hitting jumps, and go to Japan and shoot pillow lines, and mellow shredding, and I want to get some riding in too. I want to go to Alaska and go to the streets as well, if I get the opportunity. I want to be well-rounded to the point that anyone could count on me to produce good images no matter the conditions or the terrain.

In the end I think it’s just about surrounding yourself with good people that you want to work with who have good vibes, like with Absinthe. I was able to start all these great relationships in the past year and I just want to keep those rolling and to continue to produce good images that I hope people are stoked to look at. I want to have projects to work on and shoot more stuff differently and to see more places man, because it’s never ending. It’s just awesome with photography, there’s always something to learn, always some new place to go, something new to see and something to capture in a new way.

More of Andrew’s work can be seen at andrewmillerphotos.com, on his Instagram account (@andrew_miller), within the pages of frequency TSJ and other editorial titles worldwide, and in marketing campaigns for the likes Patagonia, The North Face, and many more. To purchase prints from his Himalayan expedition visit asymbol.co.


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