In 1994, Tupac Shakur was photographed with both middle fingers up as part of the rapper’s iconic Thug Life album cover shoot. The man behind the camera? Photographer Mike Miller. Mike grew up in 1970s Los Angeles, and spent much of his early adulthood religiously listening to KDAY, America’s first 24-hour hip hop radio station. After graduating from UCLA, moving to Europe and working on a number of major fashion campaigns, Mike returned to his hometown to chronicle the rise of the West Coast hip hop scene. His remarkable body of work is currently on display in M+B Gallery’s California Love until 3 November 2018.
“California Love presents a compilation of my photography from the past 29 years,” Mike tells It’s Nice That. “M+B Gallery, my wife Shannon and I sat down together to brainstorm the exhibition’s theme: California Love. It reflects my appreciation for all that Cali has offered me.” Mike’s portfolio is a love letter to 1990s LA. From late-night shots of strip clubs with names like Crazy Horse to dead-pan images of New Temple Missionary Baptist churches, Mike’s photography has immortalised the city, time and culture that gave birth to West Coast rap. Most notable, however, are Mike’s photographs of the legendary rappers themselves, including a timeless low-angle shot of Eazy-E posing next to an American flag post, and a portrait of Tupac showing off his famous Thug Life tattoo.
Mike’s sharp photographic style is effortlessly journalistic; each shot is thoughtfully framed and carefully composed. “My agent back in the day started getting me work on album covers with major record labels based off my earlier fashion work,” Mike recalls. “Tupac and Eazy eventually sought me out and hired me for some cool collaborations.” Mike’s tone is entirely blasé as he states the impressive facts of his photographic endeavours. This is, perhaps, unsurprising considering his first camera — Peter Lindberg’s old Nikon F2 — was handed to him by Linda Evangelista. It seems a stellar creative career was in the stars for Mike.
“My photographs encompass California’s whole vibe as experienced through my eyes,” Mike says. “I have such an overwhelming amount of photographs, it was difficult to narrow them down. But we decided to keep it concentrated on music and some historic landscapes.” The photographer’s work is a celebration of one of the music industry’s most defining moments. Yet, Mike’s photographs also document a group of America’s most important social critics. The music of Tupac Shakur and Eazy-E shines a light on police brutality, systemic racism and the government’s repeated mistreatment of African Americans. Mike’s California Love is an important reminder that their lyrics continue to be just as relevant over 20 years on.