When I met Brenda Milis at ReviewLA 2008 I was thrilled by her smarts and sense of humor. In the year since she has not only had a son (Jacob Strummer), but been named the Photography Director of Men's Health, where she has helped create one of the few visually compelling magazines still around. With her husband, Eric Miles, a dealer in rare photography books, Brenda is planning a blog to discuss both commercial and fine art photography. I can't wait for that dialogue.
Tell me a bit about your photo background
I got my B.A. in Art History at UC Berkeley. I knew even way back then that I wanted to make my life all about looking at and studying images, and talking about images that other people made. My second go-round of graduate studies was at The New School of Social Research in Gender and Media which was as much a way to get to NYC as it was to see if I wanted to stay in academics.
By that time my early devotion to painting had completely given way to a passion for photography and its history. I landed my first internship (work for free, learn lots) at Jane magazine, which I loved from the very first day. I knew that I had finally found something I wanted to do for a living. I’ve been a photo editor ever since.
In 2003, I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico to work for Rob Haggart at Outside Magazine and then came back to NYC a few years later to work for Laurie Kratochvil at Men’s Health.
As lovely as Santa Fe was, I missed New York like crazy. I missed the photographic and arts community. As much as it’s great to read people’s photo blogs, it’s never as good as going to a gallery opening, a museum show, and to be around other people who share your love of photography.
After a little over a year here at Men’s Health, Laurie left the magazine and I was eventually promoted to Photo Director.
What is the best thing about your job?
Besides getting to look at photography most of the day you mean? Ultimately, I’d say that the best thing about my job is its balance: It’s equal parts creativity, collaboration, and organization. There’s a lot parts to my job—a photo editor wears many hats so it does't get boring. I think you also have to be pretty darn social because you talk to many, many people every day.
There is a lot to planning photo shoots and you better dot all your “I”s and cross all your “t’s to make sure the shoot goes smoothly since even the best planned photo shoot can derail. You manage tons of details and tons of personalities. It can be draining but very rarely is it boring.
Tell us the story behind this:
I had been trying for weeks to get a shoot date with then-presidential candidate Barack Obama for our November ‘08 cover. Since I had no shoot date, I had no photographer booked and I was nervous because I knew it would be a last-minute scenario.
Sure enough, I was stuck on a runway in a huge thunderstorm for over 5 hours at JFK on a Sunday afternoon, trying to get to LA when I finally got the call from Obama’s camp giving me a date for the shoot-I had to find a photographer on the spot for two days later and give them all the info within the next several hours. Being stuck on that runway turned out to be a blessing, because I had only a few hours to pull the shoot together and had to do it immediately. If I’d been in the air on the scheduled flight, I would have missed that call and missed the tiny window of opportunity in Obama’s crazily hectic schedule!
Got in touch with Frank Ockenfels’ rep, Carol LeFlufy and booked Frank right away. I knew that the photographer would have less than 15 minutes with Obama so Frank was a great choice because he can make so much out of the most minimal of time and resources.
This collage is signature Frank and so effective in presenting Obama to the reader, revealing both his warmth and seriousness simultaneously.
What do you wish photographers knew about your job?
Interesting question. The first thing I think of is that I want them to know that I am their advocate. As much as I work for a magazine and represent the magazine, I am working with them because I respect their work and want to make sure that they are happy with the way it’s running in the magazine.
Do you have drop offs for portfolios?
Yup-anytime. People don’t send over portfolios much these days. It’s all web-based.
What is your pet peeve about photographers?
Don’t have any.
Tell us about this Nigel Cox photograph
Nigel rocks. I love being able to make pictures that are unappealing sometimes-a good photo can be gross!. We had loads of fun getting this shot. My only regret is that we weren’t allowed to run the shot that had a real, giant cockroach in it that Anne Koch, the set stylist, found in the hall! Too gross for the magazine, but soooooo right in the pic!
Whose work do you love/follow?
My imagery interests are extremely varied and I know hundreds of photographers’ work, so oddly enough, this is kind of tough to answer. I have a huge stable of established photographers whose work I love in my head, but I’m constantly bookmarking "up and coming" photographers as well.
My own taste runs to very personal, rather softer work which might be characterized as feminine, yet I have made a living for some years now producing images for men’s magazines. The first names I think of are Jessica Backhaus and Rinko Kawauchi, which immediately reveals my personal taste for beautiful images of mundane moments.
That’s a peek at Brenda the person, rather than Brenda the photo editor.
As for Brenda the photo editor, my biggest superstar photographer crush is on Peggy Sirota. She makes it look so easy and it always looks exactly right—spirited, fun, alive.
Martin Schoeller is great (his travel and environmental work I much prefer to the big heads). So is Dan Winters, Christopher Griffith, Horacio Salinas, Andrew Hetherington, Brian Finke, Chris Buck (so humorous and clever and again, someone who makes it look so effortless, tho’ of course you know he’s an extremely thoughtful shooter), Alex Tehrani, Cass Bird, and Jake Chessum.
If I still worked for Outside mag, I’d hire Jake Stangel (of Too Much Chocolate photo blog) in a hot second.
Some photographers very much in my head and heart right now which will appear to be a completely random assortment: Adam Krause, Rachel Hulin, James Pomerantz, Todd Deutsch, Gabriele Stabile, Michal Chelbin, Aya Brackett, Susana Raab, Amy Stein, Jason Florio.
I’m a huge fan of Joachim Ladefoged’s and Ben Lowy’s work. Great compositions both, and Ben’s colors are to die for.
Also on my mind lately--I love the way LA photographers shoot these days in general---a softer, looser look than those on the East Coast. I’m particularly enamored right now with several couples who shoot together: Thecollaborationist.com (Jessica Haye and Clarke Hsiao), day19 (Jeremy and Claire Weiss), as well as Nick and Chloe---what’s going on here with these couples!?
I am an avid fan of Jen Bekman and her 20x200 work helps keep me on my toes with up and coming new photographers (and puts pictures on my walls, thank you!); I also pore over magazines (call me old fashioned if you will) which is honestly still the most fun.
So now you have a slightly terrifying glimpse of how my mind jumps from one photographer to the next, person to person, genre to genre! It’s both great and distracting to be involved in assigning so many kinds of photography.
And finally, any advice for photographers?
You need to know how to market your work. Period. But if your work isn’t strong, the marketing won’t help.