Portrait of an Evolution: Earl Miller's 40th Porniversary

This article originally ran in the April 2012 issue of AVN. Click here to see the online edition of the magazine.

CHATSWORTH, Calif.—There are precious few professions in which a practitioner can maintain a superior level of performance for 40 years and still have many productive years to come. There are even fewer individuals with the stamina and creative juices to take advantage of the disciplines that offer such longevity. Luckily for the adult entertainment industry, photography is one such profession and Earl Miller is one such creative artist.

Since 1972—the same year Richard Nixon beat George McGovern to win a second (ill-fated) term in office— Penthouse magazine's most published photographer has worked consistently at the top of his game, and he’s not done reinventing himself.

Forty years is a goddamn long time, but when you sit down to talk to Earl about his voyage through time and space, as I did recently, and you begin to delve into the evolution of the man's particular arc (and art), you quickly realize how tightly his development of an artist is intertwined with the modern history of sexually explicit imagery. Like his mentor—Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione—Earl began his career during a remarkable period in American cultural history called the Sexual Revolution. The aesthetics developed by photographers at the era’s hip new “men’s magazines” influenced the fledgling porn business, which grew into an industry that still influences the way people think about sex.

But for Earl Miller, there’s always something new to be brought to the way in which he thinks about eroticism. His 40th Porniversary, therefore, is a celebration of reignited inspiration: the joy that still inspires Earl, and the work that is yet to be done. Earl was inducted into the AVN Hall of Fame 11 long years ago, but he didn’t fade away. Instead, he won two AVN Awards this year at the perfect age of 72: one for Best Photography Website, EarlMiller.com; the other for Best Web Premiere, Pictures at an Exxxhibition—his most ambitious endeavor in years. These are meaningful victories to be sure, but the work is best understood by exploring the rich contours of the artist’s past, which correspond to the history of the adult industry itself.

Were you always destined to be an erotic photographer?

Not at all! I was a working actor before I was a photographer.

No kidding? How did that happen?

Well, I was born and raised in Boston. I studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York and then I came out to California. But before that, I went to a small college in Maine called Bowdoin, which is where I first got into drama. I decided to audition for a play my sophomore year, John Millington Synge's Playboy of the Western World. At the time, I didn't even know that I wanted to be an actor. I was a pre-med student at a liberal arts college. But the head of the drama department at the time, this great Irishman named Pat Quinby, said to me at the last minute during this audition, “I want you to do it with a brogue.” I had never tried doing it with an Irish brogue, but growing up we’d had a cleaning woman who was very Irish named Mary Dunn, so I thought of her and did it, and I got the lead in the very first play I went up for. One thing led to another and it just kind of steered me out of the sciences. I ended up taking more English and literature courses than biology and continued to do the acting. I actually started medical school at Tufts after graduating from Bowdoin, but I hated it, so I quit, went to New York, got involved with the Neighborhood Playhouse and started getting some jobs.

So the transformation was complete?

From doctor to actor, yes, but not from actor to photographer, which took a few more years. After banging around New York for a while, I decided to come to California in 1965. I got a very good agent and was getting about a job a month, but it was weird, because at first I was cast in a bunch of plays as a suicide: parts for very sensitive, shy kids, which I was. Acting actually helped me get out of my own skin, but what really got me out of my skin was finding my very first camera, because looking at the world through the lens took all of my attention off myself, and then I started to really observe everything around me—people, their behavior and things.

When did you get the camera?

In 1968, I think, and I started shooting other actors immediately. I also quickly hooked up with major talent agencies as one of the two or three photographers they would recommend to their talent for head shots and composites. That allowed me to survive, but really it was the process of connecting to the camera that was a revelation for me and my life. It was instant. All I could think was, ‘Where has this been my whole life?’ I was 29 years old, so it's not like I was a kid, but I had never gotten into it before. The whole idea of f-stops and film and all that was a bit intimidating, but eventually I taught myself how to work the camera and also how to use big studio packs and strobes, since I was using only natural light when I started.

Still, you had to have some mad natural skills to be used by those agencies that early in your career.

I guess so. We're talking the commercial division of the William Morris Agency. I think I was good at communicating and dealing with people. I discovered early on that once I was behind a camera my shyness went away and I was able to get into people and get them relaxed. That was actually one of my specialties. In fact, one of my business cards had a tagline on it that read, “Specializing in un-posed pictures.”

So I guess it was something that was in my blood, but I still had to discover for myself that I had a good eye. I don't think you can learn an eye, but you can learn how to make what you imagine. When I first learned how to see an image in my head and then make it, that's when I realized I knew what I was doing and had command of the process.

Were you still acting at this point?

Yes, but not for long. I felt so fulfilled with photography that acting actually seemed like a dead end. I also loved that I was in command of myself with photography. I could determine just by my effort and hard work how much work I could get and how much money I could make. With acting, you're always waiting for the phone to ring, which is a kind of scary and insecure situation.

But early on I was also able to connect with the producers of the Sonny & Cher Show, and was hired to be their official photographer. From 1969 to 1972, I shot the show, which was great, because I was also able to connect with all of the stars who were on it. I also started shooting advertising campaigns. I did a lot of campaigns for Bugle Boy, which was a very big fashion company at that time.

I did have one last brush with acting when they were casting for The Graduate. I had done all these scenes in class from the original novel, which is incredibly brilliant, so when I heard Mike Nichols was looking for a lead I crashed the gate at Paramount and sat cross-legged in the hallway outside his office until he showed up. When he did, I said, in character, "Hey, I'm the graduate." He said I should schedule a reading with his secretary, but then I got a call from her two days later when I was supposed to come in. “Mr. Nichols has asked me to give you some confidential information,” she said. It turned out they had already cast Dustin Hoffman, which was really a brilliant move by Nichols.

It wasn’t meant to be! It’s starting to sound like you were destined to be a photographer.


So you’re working as a professional photographer, but not doing erotica yet. How did that come about?

Well, in addition to my love for photography, I also had this deep fascination with the aesthetics of femaleness. Like every young guy, but for me it transcended trying to get laid, which of course is a noble pursuit in its own right. The first thing I ever shot was a girl/girl. There was a crazy girl I knew named Rainbow, and I put her together with a girl I had met at CBS when I was shooting Sonny & Cher. She sat behind a little payroll window where employees would get their checks and we got to be friendly. I told her I was trying to shoot something for this new magazine, Penthouse, which I had seen on a newsstand.

So the magazine provided the genesis for you to start thinking about erotic content?

Yes. The first time I saw it, I was like, “Wow, something more exciting than Playboy.” It inspired me, and back then, don’t forget, most of the imagery was shot by Bob himself. As he later told me, he started shooting because in the early days he didn't have enough money to pay a photographer. So he taught himself how to do it.

Just like you.

That’s true. Anyway, he didn't end up buying that particular photo set, but the next one he did and from then on the connection between us was also electric.

What did you like about Penthouse that you didn’t like about Playboy?

It was more interesting, more adventurous. Playboy had become so rigid in the way everything looked the same, like it was shot with the same computer, while everything in Penthouse looked different from one layout to the next.

So this is 1972, three years after the magazine launched in the U.S., but close to the beginning. Did it grow fast at first?

From the time I started right into the mid-’80s, the circulation growth was explosive. When Bob started Penthouse, Playboy was selling 7 million copies a month, and the next biggest men's magazine in the world, which was called Cavalier, was selling 100,000 copies. So Bob saw room there and I was a key part of exploding Penthouse up to 6 million copies.

The fact is, it simply couldn't have been better in those days. Bob was always pushing me to break rules. For instance, I shot the first boy/girl for Penthouse, which was very tame. We didn't even show dicks, let alone a hard-on. But I put the people into such poses that it really looked like they were having sex. One day, in fact, Bob said to me, “I know you're shooting hardcore shots, but you're not giving them to me. One day we might be able to run them." I said, “Bob, honestly, it's just carefully staged.”

He didn't believe you?

No, he did. The very next opportunity I got, I shot a hardcore set. This was in the ’80s.

Let’s not leave the ’70s yet. How would you define that seminal decade in terms of your work and the culture?

Well, let me put it this way. It was the sexual revolution, though I was always shy with women, and never aggressive. But I still became known as the Che Guevara of the sexual revolution, meaning that I was—under Bob Guccione, who was perhaps the Fidel Castro of the sexual revolution—I was his main guy, and girls used to flock to my house without me having to even call them. Five or six girls would just come over and want to party and I would have to call friends and say, “I have too many girls here; can you come help me out?” It was insane, but there was a lifestyle that went hand in hand with the job and there's no denying it, and I wouldn't try to deny it, because it was a part of the excitement of the time that all this crazy sexuality was going on, all these girls were liberated, and lots of them were becoming very sexually aggressive.

It sounds like you were very aware that you were hitting your stride at the exact same time that this massive sexual and cultural revolution was taking place.

I was, but really it was inescapable. It was the sexual revolution and I was working at the fastest growing, most exciting men's magazine on the planet, and I was their main photographer and their most-published photographer.

How did that translate into shooting porn? You didn't get there by way of porn, but it sounds like you embraced it organically by way of the lifestyle.

That's exactly how it happened. As I've said many times, my fascination with women is reverential, actually near worshipful. Just the lines and the incredible aestheticism of a perfectly formed body, a beautiful face and an inner sense of mystique—makes the whole idea of lovemaking for me a very slow, sensual process.

The great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson talked about the decisive moment. The thing that makes a photograph really interesting is getting that moment when the people in the scene are focused in their attention and their involvement with whatever it is they are doing is at its height. That's when a picture is most eloquent and has the most impact.

From the beginning, I was trying to create those interesting, exciting moments. I felt my job was to find the magic that might be in the girl. I think every girl has magic, but a lot of them don't know it and don't know how to find it. I always thought a big part of my job was to help them find it, and if I accomplished that in at least a few shots in a layout, then I'd done my job.

At some point, did you not want to ruin that vision with insertion?

Yes, absolutely, because in those days porn had no aesthetic value ... none.

But it seems like at a certain point in the ’70s, creative people like you had an opening to extend a more serious aesthetic into this more graphic material.

That is exactly what happened. I used to take pride in calling myself an erotic artist, and in fact I looked down on pornography, but it should have been looked down on in that day. It was of no merit. Tapping into the lifestyle, trying to translate all that beauty and actual sex onto film in an aesthetic way, and not an exploitive way, was a challenge—and Bob always inspired me to rise to that challenge—but there was a point after I made the transition and started to shoot really hardcore layouts that I changed the definition of myself from 'erotic artist' to 'artistic pornographer.' Pornography no longer seemed to be such a bad word to me anymore.

I must say, and it’s actually hard to pat myself on the back in this way, but I was also surprised to see that the major video companies at the time started seeing me as an influence on what they did, and started to raise their own aesthetic and production value as a result.

It’s hard to imagine how exciting those times must have been for you and for everyone at Penthouse, including the performers! Were they different back then?

Well, I've always thought that a large percentage of the girls I've shot, even back in the day, are natural rule-breakers. They're always ready to bust out of some taboo and enter forbidden territory that they have been warned about all their lives. So you know they are free-thinkers, they are thinking for themselves, and making decisions for themselves. I would actually call some of the girls sexual revolutionaries, because they want to show the world that sex is cool, and that sex is an exciting thing.

It still seems like times have changed and the new generation is entering the business less as sexual revolutionaries than erotic professionals.

Sure, but it's now a lucrative career. It's become a business. It's not just breaking rules. If you are pretty and free with your sexuality, there is now a way for you to make a substantial living. And you also have a shot at using this experience as a springboard to other things. That really wasn't possible before. You can not only move into some other industry, but also move into the mainstream movie industry seamlessly, like Sasha Grey.

That has to have raised the level of talent you’re seeing.

And how; it’s one of the key things I learned doing Pictures at an Exxxhibition. I was so used to shooting new girls, going all the way back to day one at Penthouse when there was no porn industry and the girls had tracks on their arms and were bruised up from their biker boyfriends. Now, there are classy, talented people doing porn, but I still wasn't booking them because I had as my business model magazine sales along with posting things to my website. So I hadn’t shot the girls I used in Pictures at an Exxxhibition, like Victoria Rae Black, Ash Hollywood, Lexi Belle, Lily Carter and Kristina Rose. They're all pricey girls and I didn't see the value of paying that kind of money to someone I couldn't make a magazine sale on.

But putting all of them in this production gave me a new respect for how good they really are. Besides being talented and beautiful, they bring a professional level of quality and hard work, of knowing just how to light up when it starts and make it happen. It was a wonderful experience working with these girls, and they really convinced me why they are worth getting what they get.

And there’s something else I learned about working with these girls. They can act! They bring real talent. I had no dialogue written for my ten-episode piece. It's an erotic fantasy, and I just gave them the situation and allowed them to improvise, and they were able to communicate everything asked of them with just a look or a glance, which is film acting. I mean, the best film actors do that, and it just blew me away that there is now real acting talent in our industry, and not just sexual talent. They're a complete package. I can't rave more about the body of talent that I was smart enough to cast in Exxxhibition.

Before we move to the present and the future, let’s talk about the post-Penthouse years, so to speak. What was going on from the mid-’90s on?

I was exclusive to Penthouse until 1992, as far as my erotic work was concerned. But in 1992 I had a kid, and needed to make more money. I was never under contract to Bob. Our connection was always creative, which was all I needed to feel secure. But I also needed to make more money, and Bob said he wouldn't mind if I began shooting for the other magazines as long as I didn't use my own name. That was okay with me because I didn't want my name in lesser magazines, but what it did do was that starting in 1992 I began shooting what became my own library of content, because the small magazines just buy first print rights whereas Penthouse paid enough to get all rights.

So, from 1992 to 1998, I built up this gigantic library. When the internet came along I had enough to launch a website, which I did in 1998. It allowed me to storm the internet.

That’s a great visual. Earl Miller on horseback storming the Bastille! Was it very different being on your own?

Well, for years I shot for an audience of one, Bob Guccione, and also for myself, because I knew that by pleasing myself I would please him. It's still the same thing. I figure that if I just please myself the people who come to my website will find what pleases them, and I do get feedback that validates that. It’s one of the great positives of the internet, that instant feedback.

So, it sounds like you've had some creative and business epiphanies of late that have been instrumental in reinvigorating your creative juices.

When I took on the project to put on my website Pictures at an Exxxhibition, I wanted to do something that was so distinctive, so fresh and original, that even though people are stealing it and putting it up on pirate sites, there would be other people willing to pay the money to come to Earl Miller's site to see it, because he worked hard, he put this together, he had a vision and he accomplished it.

So yes, the big thing I learned is that to do something of this scope as a web-only release was not the common wisdom. But I see now that some of the giants in the business are going to be doing some web-only releases, too. They just saw me, one guy, win this award. So that is very gratifying. But look, with DVDs dying or dead, where is the outlet? A web-only release may not be as lucrative as DVDs were five years ago, but it's still a way to make something of value and still have it be a profitable business. That's one of the key things I learned doing Pictures at an Exxxhibition.

For a print guy you sure have taken to the internet like a fish to water.

I’m a big fan. Piracy is the negative side of the internet, but the positive side is instant communication with your members and fans. I'm happy to say that most of my business is from type-ins, people who are looking for me. They're not coming from an affiliate. I have affiliates, but the vast majority of my membership is people who find me on their own.

When did you make the switch from film to digital?

2006, I think. For decades, I shot with Kodachrome, which is a very difficult film, very demanding. If your light readings are slightly off, you're screwed, and every time the model moves you have to take another reading and adjust the lights. Before digital power packs came along, if I wanted to either increase or reduce the intensity of a light, I either had to put a neutral density gel across the light or move it further away or closer. And then you're shooting blind, taking your film to a lab. So when everything’s said and one you're waiting days to get an answer on stuff you've already shot.

Needless to say, what I absolutely love about digital is that you have an instant impression of what you've just shot; not something like what you've just shot, but exactly what you've shot, and you can zoom in tight on things now and really see details. The instant feedback on exactly what you are shooting is almost like a religious experience.

But do you think the skills you developing using film has helped you in the digital era?

Absolutely. I've never stopped learning, but don't forget, the digital image is a file of data, it's not the final photograph. The final photograph happens after you shoot it, and especially with the sophisticated levels of Photoshop and other software, there are so many things that can be done with things that had to be done prior to shooting when using film. So, it's a different process, but I definitely still bring things to bear from what I learned before.

Did you have to be dragged kicking and screaming to video?

I was reluctant to get into video, yes, because it takes a team to create the final product. With photography, it's totally personal, it's your work, and you don't have to filter it through a cinematographer or a film editor. So, while I've really come to embrace video, I still bring that same exact sense of stuff from my still days, and I think it's made me a better video producer and director. I don't run a video camera; younger guys can make more fluid moves than I can. For Exxxhibition, I hired a really topnotch cinematographer, Barry Wood, who understood me so he was able to deliver what I wanted to see.

What the biggest difference between video and still photography?

Video is collaborative, but still photography takes more craft. For instance, there was a shoot I did in the late ’80s where I was shooting this couple on the beach, and I had the idea that I wanted to shoot an orgasm. But how do you do that in a still photo? So they were lying in the sand and I had them each clench the sand, and I did a close-up of the hands clenching the sand. I thought, that was a way to show an orgasm in a still picture. It so influenced Bob that he had me shoot a layout for a later issue of a man's hands relating to a woman in this very sensual, beautiful way. That's one example of how you have to make these statements with stills. With video, for an orgasm, well, they're really fucking, though I have to say the obligatory pop shot still bugs me. I actually won't let a guy jerk himself off; I want the girl to be holding and stroking his dick when he comes. I think it's infinitely more interesting and erotic. The last thing I want to see is a guy jerking himself off.

Do you think storytelling in porn is important?

Visual storytelling, but I don't want to see a lot of dialogue in a sex film. It does nothing for me. If I want to see really good dialogue I'll go see a Hollywood movie, where they can do 38 takes and get really good intonations. Like I said, there's now a wonderful level of acting that exists in the adult industry talent pool, but I would rather see that acting in the way of glances, looks, expressions, and very little in the way of dialogue. That's why I didn't write a dialogue script for Exxxhibition, but instead structured it as a fantasy with a beginning, middle and end. I mean, am I wrong to say that for most consumers of porn that fast forward button was a godsend to get past the dialogue to the next sex scene?

Absolutely true, even for reviewers. It seems the challenge for you is that you want to keep the viewer's attention throughout.

Yes, I don't want to see my guy reach for the remote, getting a cramp in his thumb.

Maybe porn was never supposed to have that much dialogue. Maybe you're actually working in an area that has more potential going forward.

That's the way I see it, and I hope I'm right. This project really opened my eyes to a potential in video that I had never really seen before. Going forward, I’m interested in continuing to learn how to express myself with the live action medium, so that's a challenge and it's exciting, it's new turf. I still bring the same sensibilities to it, but I'm learning the rules and the playing ground. I once thanked Bob for giving me a sandbox to play in, but honestly, I still feel like a little kid playing in a sandbox.

That feminine mystique you speak about, is that pool so deep that you can never get to the bottom of it?

I believe it is. I don't think you ever solve that one and that why I'm still like a kid. I remember another thing Bob said to me years ago during the explosive growth years, and I think this applies to anything erotic today: He said, “The whole secret to publishing a successful men's magazine is to reach the most discerning reader without losing the average slob.” Otherwise, you'll never sell enough copies to be able to give the discerning reader something he wants to see. And also, are you then also converting people and raising their sexual consciousness.

I hope I don't sound pretentious, but that was a motivating factor for me. I like the idea of raising people's sexual consciousness to a higher level. That's why I'm not deterred by the last few generations that have grown up with all this, frankly, bad porn in which women are depicted in a rude way.

Is retiring an option?

Why, do I look like an old guy?

Not at all!

Ten or eleven years after being inducted into the AVN Hall of Fame, I actually won two awards. I mean, what is that? So I'm still relevant, and I'm relevant because I'm still excited about what I do. In fact, Pictures at an Exxxhibition got me out of a certain creative rut, the rut of just shooting girl by pool. I mean, it's nice but it starts to become formulaic, and that's a problem throughout the industry.

So if you're asking me what my future is, it is to continue expanding people's consciousness about sexual experiences, and using the Earl Miller brand to reach enough people so that I am still part of the cutting edge. Where is the cutting edge today? Where is the cutting edge in this sea of predictable, repetitive, monotonous porn that is everywhere? There have got to be far more people that are open to experiencing this if they are given the chance to experience it, and that is really what keeps me moving forward.

Has it gone by fast?

It seems like yesterday that I picked up my first camera. The joy just seems to be timeless. It's a continuum. When you're doing something you love, you're in the moment. When you're in the moment what came before and what might happen becomes less important, almost irrelevant. And the truth of it is, we only live in the moment. It's the only time you're alive. So if you are fully alive in that moment, and I am fully alive when I am working, the joy is literally timeless.

What has been the single highlight of your career thus far?

Well, I would have to say taking on Pictures at an Exxxhibition, for a few reasons. The thing that triggered it was that my connection to Bob became something that began to obsess me, what he meant to me. That's when my attention was directed to Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, which was written as an homage to his painter friend, Victor Hartman. So it started as something that would allow me to honor Bob for helping me find myself. But it turned out to be such a total experience for me in an audio-visual way, that I was engaged me on every level of creativity and organizational skill—with its heart always being my love for Bob, who is now gone—and then to have it actually happen, and actually get out there, and then actually win an award? It's been an incredible rebirth for me creatively. I'm living in the moment again, thanks to being able to conceive, design and execute a project of that scope.