“If you’re going to pay homage and re-create an iconic image,” Sandro Miller is saying, in his warm Chicago accent, “you’d better nail it. Why would you touch it if you wouldn’t do it to perfection?” And oh lord, did he sweat the details when it came to “Homage: Malkovich and the Masters,” the series of photos that’s just gone on view at Yancey Richardson. Each began with an extremely famous photograph: Yousuf Karsh’s portrait of Ernest Hemingway in his chunky sweater, or Annie Leibovitz’s of Meryl Streep in mime makeup, or Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” Diane Arbus’s identical twins. And each replaces the original subject with John Malkovich, the actor whose highly expressive funny-weirdo face practically forces you to look again, maybe more than once, at an image you thought you knew inside-out.
Re-photography projects happen all the time, of course. Most recently, James Franco inserted himself into Cindy Sherman’s movie-still photographs, and got torched for it. The difference here is that Miller’s homages are incredibly meticulous. The high-contrast, high-impact lighting in the Hemingway portrait impeccably reproduces Karsh’s. For the Arbus twins, the hairline crack in the wall and the little paint spatters on the brick were copied with exquisite care. (“I don’t want to put James Franco down,” says Miller diplomatically, when this comes up in our conversation, “but it just wasn’t done right.”) “We spent a year and a half on research—finding the type of cameras and films that they were using,” Miller says, “and we even reproduced the grain in the film. Even the texture of the embroidery in Picasso’s collar.” A better comparison might be Douglas Levere’s fanatically faithful revisits to the sites of Berenice Abbott’s New York cityscapes. But Malkovich in a dress is a lot funnier than the Woolworth Building is.
Needless to say, Miller was not able to keep John Malkovich on call for a year and a half, even though the two men have a 20-year working relationship. So the studio team prepared every setup — lighting, set, makeup, costumes, $150,000 worth of wigs — and logged the positions of everything to within an eighth of an inch, then dismantled it. When the star was available, everything was put back together in one highly choreographed run, and all 41 portraits were made over the course of six very, very long days. “Every shot,” Miller says, “he had to go into hair and makeup, two and a half hours or more. But that gave him time to spend with the original images. He’d sit in his chair, and begin to morph himself — you could see it.”
Were there any photographs he wanted to make and couldn’t? “There were two,” Miller says, and they both involved elephants: Richard Avedon’s portrait of Dovima, and Mary Ellen Mark’s of the animal trainer Ram Prakash Singh. Animal-rights activists, he explains, have put severe restrictions on almost all such projects, and hiring an elephant was prohibitively expensive. “And I wanted to do Mark Seliger’s portrait of Kurt Cobain for Rolling Stone,” he adds, “because it’s just so great. But we ran out of time.”