Jeff Miller takes aim from inside the chopper.
Three hundred fifty feet above the UW-Madison campus, a helicopter carrying photographers Jeff Miller and Bryce Richter is circling in anticipation.
Strapped into harnesses with cameras pointed out the open helicopter door, the two are patiently waiting for the moment known as the "golden hour," a fifteen minute window of time during sunrise and sunset when the sun's placement along the horizon creates long, picturesque shadows and covers the land in a beautiful, golden glow. Accompanied by the rattling of metal and the deafening whirl of helicopter blades, they look through their cameras' viewfinders, scanning the ground below.
Students the size of ants are walking home from class, playing soccer and idly laying on the grass. The streets are filled with afternoon traffic and construction, cars moving at erratic speeds in and out of the downtown area. It's a world of activity seen from a rare bird's eye view, an all-encompassing look at Madison's downtown landscape and the people who call it home.
But when the shadows stretch and the city begins to blush as if it has suddenly caught fire, both photographers will be ready, fingers poised on their shutter releases to forever capture poignant scenes.
Not a bad gig, huh? The helicopter ride is special, but capturing special moments on campus is all in a day's work for Miller and Richter, senior photographer and photographer (respectively) of the University Communications office. Whether compiling candid photographs of student life for the Univerity of Wisconsin-Madison website or composing scenes for alumni and enrollment materials, Miller and Richter are, in many ways, responsible for shaping the visual identity of the UW-Madison campus. An equal partnership (as they adamantly declare), the two have since 2007 developed an interesting working relationship, particularly for a pair of artists.
Born in 1964 in York, Pennsylvania, Jeff Miller spent much of his childhood growing up in a university campus setting. Moving around a lot with his family as his father pursuedadvanced degrees at various universities across the U.S., they eventually settled in South Bend, Indiana in the early 1970s, where his father was a psychology professor at St. Mary's College. There in South Bend, Miller became infatuated with photography. After getting his hands on the family camera, he disappeared one afternoon, only to return hours later asking if there was any more film in the house.
"That was a bit frustrating for my parents," recalls Miller. "This was back in the era when a roll of film was solely for documenting annual events, the holidays, the birthdays, the vacations."
But as the years went on, Miller's unflagging dedication to photography eventually won his parents over. By high school, what may have at first seemed like a hobby became a full-fledged passion. Admittedly reserved at a young age, he joined an after-school photo club and took some high school photo classes, eventually contributing to the school's yearbook. While simultaneously perfecting his craft, he also used the opportunity as a way to interact with other students.
"I think then and now, photography has always been a comfortable way for me to interact and communicate with the world around me," says Miller, who with age seems to have overcome his initial shyness, speaking quickly and in lengthy paragraphs."And as the years went on, I increasingly began putting the two together as a possible career path."
Garnering numerous "gold key" awards at the regional level of Kodak's Scholastic competition for his high school photography, it was with his senior portfolio that he advanced into the top 50 at the national level. With a new-found sense of recognition, Miller was dead set on studying photography at a college level.
"My father was supportive of my pursuing photography as long as it was done at a strong, liberal arts college," says Miller. He eventually applied and was accepted to the University of Dayton, where he received a Bachelor's of Fine Arts in photography. Perhaps more important than the degree itself, however, was the opening of a part-time photographer's position in the university's public relations department near the end of his senior year.
"I had no idea if I'd be interested in it or not," recalls Miller, "but there were several things that gelled my senior year as far as having exposure to a photojournalism class and simultaneously doing an internship at a fine art photography gallery an hour away in Cincinnati. I had my feet in two very different worlds, but I still wasn't very comfortable with taking pictures of people. Then my photojournalism instructor Skip Peterson said something to me that really influenced me. He said, 'People make the world go round.' That just really resonated with me, and my photos began taking off from there."
Joining the department as a part-time photographer, he slowly worked his way up the ranks. After four-and-a-half years, he obtained an administrative photographer's position, but a feeling began developing in the 26-year-old Miller that he'd outgrown the Dayton area. Based on a recommendation from the photo editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, a national academic publication, Jeff received a call from the director of UW-Madison News and Information Service, inviting him to apply for the open photographer position.
"I'd never set foot in Wisconsin, didn't know a soul there," says Miller. "And then after about a month, I found myself packing up a truck and moving my life to Madison."
Thinking over the specific dates, Miller adds, "The conversation began around the summer of my 26th birthday, so that was back in 1990. Which means I'm going into my 21st year as a photographer here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison."
In the early '90s, Miller served as the sole photographer for what was then called the "News and Information Service." Although its name has changed several times over the years and its staff has grown considerably, the important role University Communications serves to the UW-Madison community remains steadfast, offering an array of assistance to various campus media units. As the its roles and related communication mediums broadened over the years and the department's workload increased to the point where more than a few student assistants were required, funding was secured for a second photographer's position.
More than extra bodies, however, was the necessity for people with knowledge of the changing landscape of photography, which was then on the cusp of a digital revolution.
"I was learning a lot about digital photography on the fly back in the late 1990s/early 2000s," says Miller. "But I needed someone that understood technical things very well. My strength has always been more the vision and conceptual part of photography. I'm interested in the technical aspect only to the point that it helps me achieve the end result. But that's why the eventual pairing between me and Bryce was perfect."
Born in 1974 in Burkburnett, Texas, Bryce Richter's personality and journey into career photography differs significantly from Miller's. A reserved"yin" to Miller's talkative "yang," there was no epiphany at a young age that caused Richter to become a photographer. He was more interested in painting and drawing, two hobbies done solely for enjoyment. As he got older and attended Midwestern State University, it was only after taking a few studio art courses that he decided to focus the rest of his college career pursuing art.
Receiving a BA in Studio Art with a focus in painting and printmaking, Richter then attended Notre Dame in 1999 for his graduate degree. Continuing his studies in Studio Art, the style that most interested him was photorealistic painting. During his undergraduate and graduate years, Richter first picked up a camera with little interest in photography as an art form itself, viewing the camera first as a tool to aid his painting.
"Up until that point, photography was simply an information gathering tool for me," says Richter. "I would take photos of objects in a studio, and then use the photos later as reference materials. It wasn't until the end of grad school that I really started to view it as something else. There seemed to be more job opportunities related to photography, and I also began to embrace the immediacy of what a camera could achieve."
After graduate school, Richter spent a year-and-a-half working as an exhibit designer for a small history museum in Indiana when a position for a photographer/photo editor opened up back at Notre Dame's communications office. With a healthy knowledge of photography along with several years experience working with digital editing software in school, Richter applied for the position and was accepted. Taking on the duties of campus photographer while also managing the campus' freelance photographers, he worked at Notre Dame for four years, enjoying the excitement of a campus setting. The position, however, was eventually eliminated, and Richter spent the summer of 2007 working as a freelance photographer while looking for a permanent job.
During his search, he stumbled upon an open photographer position at UW-Madison and sent over a portfolio of his work from Notre Dame.
"I like to tease Bryce every now and then because I think it's funny that he worked in a style of photorealistic painting and then figured out photography was an easier way to capture images and make money," jokes Miller. "But in all seriousness, when the photography position opened up and Bryce's name came into the pool, we saw his work and he was immediately put in the top of our candidate selection. I saw a lot of his painting sensibilities in the way he constructed a frame, and along with his technical knowledge, I knew we had to have him."
Since their pairing, Miller and Richter have developed not only a close friendship, but admit to having grown as photographers because of one another, with Richter learning from Miller's experience and Miller benefiting from Richter's technical prowess.
"I've learned to be a freer photographer from Jeff," says Richter. "At Notre Dame, there was a lot of what I'd call 'photo by committee.' There was a lot of set-up for photos in terms of which students were picked, which settings were chosen, making sure everything was well lit. But here at UW-Madison, we do a lot more editorial-based photography, where you go and just capture what's actually there and are really genuine to the subject."
Talking about Richter, Miller speaks in glowing terms.
"I may be the senior photographer, but there has never been a moment where I think of Bryce as a second-tier photographer. His photos have really grown in my eyes, and seeing how good he is at breaking things down to the smallest detail has really benefited me with my own photography. Every time we go out together on an assignment, it's a true collaboration in every sense of the word."
Their most public collaboration to date came this past October during an aerial shoot of the UW-Madison campus. Planned during one the University Communications' weekly editorial meetings, the idea was to obtain new aerial stock photography for various publications while also documenting the changes that had occurred within the campus landscape due to major construction over the last decade.
"We knew that there was a very detailed campus master plan for what UW-Madison will look like when all the construction is finally finished," says Miller. "So coming out of this large building movement, we thought, why not make use of this content and debut it first as an editorial project? Let the people of Madison see what their campus looks like from above."
Considering the large investment of an aerial shoot, and always striving to get the most content from their efforts, Miller invited Richter along, confident in his abilities and previous experience. To capture an array of perspectives, they brought along a series of cameras, each equipped with different a lens to capture multiple perspectives. Manning a Nikon D3 digital camera paired with a 70-200 mm zoom telephoto lens, Richter focused his camera on specific details of the ground while Miller took in a more panoramic view, juggling three Nikon D3 digital cameras with varying lenses.
Receiving clearance to fly below 1,000 feet over the city, a helicopter was chartered from Fly High Wisconsin out of Baraboo. Pilot Eric Peterson flew the two photographers above the University campus, slowly circling in specific positions discussed previous to take off. With the aid of a gyroscope attachment to dampen the helicopter's vibrations from effecting the sharpness of the photos, they returned to the ground with a wealth of imagery, many of which were featured on an online slideshow titled Taking The High View.
The slide show was a huge success in the community, receiving a large viewership and over 1,000 Facebook "Likes" and numerous comments. A second slideshow entitled Aerial Artistry followed, achieving equal popularity, and comprising of more artistic photos from the same shoot that didn't fit into the construction theme of Taking the High View.
"It really speaks volumes when we can create something that resonates with so many people," Miller says of the slideshow's popularity. "And that's what I really love about this position. What I photographed ten years ago, what I photograph today and a year from now in theory all support a larger whole, which is in representing the university and what it was like the moment the photo was taken."
Agreeing with this sentiment, Richter adds: "I think being a photographer at the university provides a wealth of opportunities to meet people doing amazing things with their lives in a broad variety of ways. A college campus is a concentrated population of individuals seeking to improve themselves and the world around them, and getting to cover all of this is something that I really enjoy."
With 2011 coming to a close, Miller and Richter have compiled their favorite photos from the previous year and will feature it in a new slideshow entitled Moments In Time. While a few of the aerial shots will be included, it will also feature an all-encompassing view of UW-Madison life as seen through photographers' eyes. As the series of images proceed, look closely: you may be surprised to find yourself, forever captured as a part of the university's continuing history.