Michael Muller has lived on the edge. Experiencing his first taste of fame at 16—when the first of his many snowboarding images were published in ISM and Vertical Addictions calendar—he soon saw Detour feature his first non-snowboarding shots, then Elle, by age 22.
Today, after years of shooting edgy musicians, including Green Day, Will Smith, and Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), he's back to focusing on athletes for such premier clients as Airwalk, Speedo, and Nike, bringing out the wilder side, or just a different side, of creative capture.
Wet and Wild
The 2005-2006 Speedo campaign is a prime example. "I wanted to do something different," he explains. "I was working with Olympic athletes—some were distance swimmers, some were sprinters. We also had some water polo players, divers, and triathletes.
"They were all highly skilled, so I knew they wouldn't have a problem doing a lot of stuff under water, even in the 16-foot-deep end of the Olympic-size swimming pool, previously used for the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
"I wanted to show them doing some amazing feats, like pulling a ball and chain underwater. We used sign language to communicate."
There were plenty of choreographed shots, like images of a couple diving, a couple swimming across the pool, and water polo players in action (p. 28, top).
"All of [these were] captured in-camera," he says. "We'd huddle before a shot, and I'd tell them who was going to do what, and they did it." The polo shot was captured in an impressive five minutes!
Muller says that's typical of his shoots, citing his Airwalk 2004 and 2005 campaigns as additional examples. "I like to keep my images real. The most I'll do is adjust the colors or contrast, but the bones have to be there. The fact that I get it all in-camera inspires first-time clients to ask if what I do is done in post," says Muller. "Every part of an image is critical, from the lighting to the colors. Everything needs to come together for an image to be great."
His 2005 Speedo job marked the first project he shot extensively underwater.
"I had to learn how to make skin look like skin under water, which I did by using a combination of available light and some slaved strobes. It required a wide range of elaborate lighting, from Profoto Pro-7b and Pro-7a packs to two huge Elinchrom lights for the diving images. It was a very technical shoot, 24 days at first. Then I just shot three more days in October," notes Muller, who starts shooting the 2006–2007 Speedo campaign in April.
"My images have a truth to them. I try to capture moments, planned or otherwise, and I try to capture it all in-camera. I'd say 85 percent of the time something happens with a set or location that causes me to shift the image entirely. So there's a definite sense of spontaneity in my work. Half of what I do is about just showing up, so I pack everything I could possibly need to cover all bases, and I'm prepared when something presents itself. I'm very chameleon-like."
Muller's Airwalk 2005 campaign is a case in point. "The third day of the shoot we were in Huntington Beach, California. We'd done a couple of ‘contrived' shots on the beach and then had a chance to get out on some WaveRunners. My assistants, Jason O'Dell and Christopher Beyer, got onto one with a Profoto Pro-7b pack and a beauty dish. I got onto another with my Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and some PocketWizards. It was a really stormy day, but we got our shot of a female surfer in the waves before the weather turned really ugly."
Back from Black
Though Muller is what his wife, Kimberly, calls a "reformed bad boy," he retains all of the edginess and memories of a former wild child. Muller's off-the-cuff style has earned him a string of assignments for publications such as Elle, ESPN The Magazine, and Glamour. Having recovered from a self-destructive detour he took in his mid-20s was "a humbling experience," reflects Muller. "But it gave me the chance to rebuild myself from the inside out, and taught me not to take things for granted."
His athletic background and circle of friends, including musicians and actors he likes to call upon for his shoots, has influenced his photography and helped him understand the needs and audience of such big-name clients as Von Dutch, Coors, Cingular, MTV, and Fox Studios.
"I will sit with a client and discuss exactly what they want, or they'll give me a mock-up without a meeting," says Muller. "Then I'll create the shot and nail it. Afterward, I'll set up another, which has my take on it. When I present both, most times the client chooses mine."