2011-04-21 / News

Island photographer describes his journey to Jamestown

By Ken Shane


Don Miller Don Miller After two tours of duty with the U.S. Navy in Vietnam, Don Miller found himself in Washington, D.C. working for Adm. Hyman Rickover at Naval Reactors. He describes the job as “pushing papers.”

“Nothing very exciting,” Miller said, “except that I worked for him, which was very exciting.”

It was around that time that Miller noticed an advertisement for a correspondence course from the Famous Photographers School of Westport, Conn. Seeking a new challenge — and encouraged by his wife — he signed up for the 24-lesson course. He was inspired after receiving an A in his first lesson, convinced that he was going to be a famous photographer. But after 12 lessons he found himself bored and didn’t finish the course.

“I worked in New York City for a year, as an assistant photographer, doing everything from darkroom stuff to mopping the floors and helping in the studio,” Miller said. “I really got big.”

Not long after, Miller decided to start his own business in his home state of New Jersey. His studio was one of the first of a wave of quality photography studios that were opening in New Jersey at the time as opposed to New York City.

In the early 1970s, he managed to land an account with American Cyanamid, a company that owned Breck Shampoo, Pine-Sol and a host of other household consumer liners. Miller’s work for the company was the beginning of a highly successful business for him.

Miller continued to build his business, later taking on a partner and purchasing an 11,000-square-foot building for his studio. In the late 1990s, after nearly 30 years of success, a combination of economic and professional issues made business conditions extremely diffi cult.

“The late ’90s were an economic downturn and that was combined with the beginning of digital photography, which was messy,” Miller said. “Things were quiet. A lot of it was the new stuff with digital. It would have been quiet even without the switch to digital. We started with 10 people and we got down to four.”

He continued, “There wasn’t much to do. I was ready for a change and I was ready to get lost for a while. In Jamestown, you can be quite social and quite involved, and you can be very lost. I started out being kind of lost, and now I’m kind of involved, but that works out fine.”

At the time, the photographer had a boat that he kept in Milford, Conn., and he seized the opportunity by taking a trip to the Block Island and Newport area. The thought of closing his business in New Jersey was on his mind, and when a bartender in Newport suggested that he take a look at Jamestown, he took a trip over the bridge.

“We drove down Conanicus, past the Bay Voyage, and came out to that open area with all the boats at moorings,” he said. “What’s not to like?”

The sight was enough to convince him to give up his photography business and the New Jersey building that housed it and move to Jamestown.

“There was a lot of pressure,” Miller said. “I decided to dump the assets and come in this direction.”

After the move, when Miller would get a call from a client, he would rent studio space. It made more economic sense to operate in that fashion, although it would require him to travel to the New York metropolitan area to work because that was where his clients were. The fact that he still had family in New Jersey made things relatively easy in that regard.

These days, Miller tends to let the work come to him. For the most part, the work he gets comes by word of mouth.

“Photography is absolutely a business of contacts,” Miller said. “I want to think of myself as being nearer the top than the bottom, but if you don’t appeal to that person who is buying photography, you’re not going to keep them. If they don’t like you, you’re done.”

To illustrate his point about contacts, Miller points to a recent call from the broker who sold him his boat. The broker is now the top man in Rhode Island for Oyster Yachts.

Miller was asked to photograph the Newport Rendezvous. He was paid by the company to shoot for nearly three days and was encouraged to offer his photographs for sale to the boat owners themselves. Miller has the advantage of owning his own chase boat, which facilitates his on-the-water photography.

The veteran photographer still shoots speculatively as well. He might be found on the water photographing an event like the annual New York Yacht Club Regatta, hoping to sell his photographs to a leading sailing magazine like Cruising World or Sail.

Even after all this time as a professional, Miller still loves what he does and often takes photographs for his own satisfaction. “For years I had to satisfy an art director or a client and that was fine,” he said. “But today, when I go out to shoot, I’m shooting for me.”

“There’s not a lot I haven’t shot,” he added. “I have photographed out of helicopters a couple of times with the door off. I’ve photographed open-heart surgery. I’ve photographed soup. I’ve photographed a ton of stuff and it’s all been fantastic.”

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