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How 19-Year-Old Photographer Franey Miller Went From High School to Shooting for 'Nylon' and 'Bullett'

One young photographer tells us about breaking into the industry.
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Miller in front of the camera. Photo: Ruby Maxwell

Miller in front of the camera. Photo: Ruby Maxwell

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

Since starting out as a fashion photographer, Franey Miller has racked up a solid CV, shooting editorials for magazines like Nylon, Oyster and Bullett. She also happens to be 19 years old, having chosen to skip college, internships and assisting more established photographers in favor of setting out on her own. 

This isn't to cast Miller as some kind of photography wunderkind; it's just relevant information to anyone curious about her career. Here's her take on making rent, preserving teenage awkwardness and the virtues of visiting magazine offices uninvited.

How old are you? I ask because I saw you’d written a post on your site about the frustrations of being taken seriously when you're so young.

I’m 19. I didn’t go to college; I graduated like a year and a half ago. I considered about going to art school for two seconds, then I was like, "Okay, no one’s going to teach you to be creative. I already know what I want to do." I got shit at my high school for knowing what I wanted to do and not going to college, but then other people get shit for not knowing what they want to do, so where can I be right here, [guidance] counselors? I took a year to chill out at home and went to New York back and forth. I moved here on July 1.

My big question here is how you got yourself off the ground when you moved here. 

A lot of emails — I mean, honestly since the second half of senior year. I’ve been shooting seriously since I was 15, and I shot film for two and a half years. I was playing around with friends. 

I didn’t really have a normal high school experience. I never partied or drank or anything. I didn’t do it. I filled my weekends writing emails. I just worked really hard, and all my friends were like, "What are you doing? You should be a teenager." But, like, no. I’ll do that later. I have all the time in the world. The past few years [of high school] I had an internship at a newspaper that I never went to, so I would sign out and go home. I shot every weekend.

Who were you emailing?

Agencies and magazines and brands. I don’t really like the idea of learning from another photographer. I learn on my own because I shoot and make mistakes and correct them. I'm an Internet junkie; I was born in '95. I literally stalk everyone. I know so much about designers, models, other photographers’ work. I have a one track mind. I can’t do math or think in numbers at all.

How did being so young influence your experience breaking into the industry?

I lost jobs because of it. People would be like, "Oh my god you’re 12. You’re 19. Don’t disappoint me." On set, they say that. And it’s like, you hired me!

They would say that after they'd hired you?

Yeah. You hired me because you like my work. Don’t doubt me on set. That doesn’t make me want to take good photos for you.

Or I’ll be in a meeting to get a job, and they’ll be like, "Oh my god, we love your work." And they’ll ask how old I am and I’ll be like, “Guess! Ha-ha-ha,” and they give some high wrong number.

Do you have friends who are trying to do the same thing?

My friends are like 23 and up. I’m not really friends with photographers. I tried, it did not work out. People are competitive, you know? 

I feel like 19 is the college age and internship age. I do this thing where I walk into magazines’ offices to meet with people on the spot because I’m ridiculous. When I was 17, I walked into Bullett, and was like, “Hey, here’s my book.” And I met with the founder for 45 minutes to talk about my work, and then I shot for them a year and a half later.

Photo: Franey Miller

Photo: Franey Miller

You just walked in cold. 

Did not call. I did that with W, about four weeks after I moved here. I met with the editor for five minutes. I waited outside for an hour, but I have his contact now. 

The thing that I always forget as a writer is that it's easy to be intimidated about approaching a publication, but people always need more content. 

I know. No one submits. Oyster [has] a disclaimer on its site that says, "Don’t submit," and I sent [work] anyways. I got a story in Oyster.

What are you doing for fashion week?

I’m shooting for Oyster. I emailed i-D and they were like, "Maybe." Whatever, next season. I like them a lot. They were like, "Keep in touch."

Which photographers do you admire?

I like Ryan McGinley’s work a lot. Tim Barber. Tim Walker is like my first photographer love. Who else? I love Cass Bird. She's awesome.

I love her Instagram. It's all Daria Werbowy with no makeup.

I love that style. But I also do like Lachlan Bailey’s stories. Not [too] retouched, but kind of retouched. It’s pretty. I love no retouching, no makeup. Obviously I’ll get a pimple out, but makeup just takes so long and I hate how it photographs.

Where do you like shooting?

I like water a lot. If more designers let me get their stuff wet I would shoot girls in water all the time. I like Iceland landscapes; I’ve never been there. There's a black sand beach, and all the rocks. Blue and green are my favorite colors. I always feel like I add a blue-green tone.

Let's talk income. What shoots do you make money off of?

Lookbooks are one thing. Test shoots.

I make enough money. Lookbooks are $400 or $500. If I do three of them a month, at the bare minimum, I can pay my rent and buy food, which is fine. I'm getting by, and I’m used to being broke because my family’s really broke, too. 

What do you not get paid for?

Editorials, which is what I want to get paid for. But sometimes designers will pay me to do editorials with their whole collection.

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If it were commissioned, they would pay me. It's a weird thing. Everyone says people do [editorial] pro bono, and I’m like, "Yeah right." Are you doing it out of your pocket? No.

Where do you get feedback on your work at this point?

Like criticism? I don’t, really. One of the reasons is that I don’t want to hold myself back. I give myself criticism. I know some people like my work, I know some people hate it, but I feel like I need to learn how to grow myself. 

Do magazines give you comments at all?

No, they’re like, "No we're not interested," or "Yeah, we love it." I don’t really want feedback. Not that I’m so cool, but I’d rather figure it out myself.

Photo: Franey Miller

Photo: Franey Miller

How do Instagram and Tumblr play into getting your name out there? I mean, I found you on Instagram.

Oyster tagged me on Instagram, and that’s how Unif found me. The clothing company I’m being flown out [to LA] for found me on Instagram. Everyone finds me on Instagram.

What time do you wake up?

I wake up at seven or eight, but if I have a shoot at five in the morning I’ll wake up before that. I really love early call times. I love early mornings. If I wake up before sunrise, my day is better.

What does a week look like for you?

Saturday and Sunday are my shoot days. It's my work days, but also the weekend because I love shooting. I'll have a few meetings with designers. I have a few tests during the week, hang out, take photos, make some money. 

I do my own shoots, send a lot of emails. Friday or Thursday I hang out with my friends. I do a lot of stuff, but it’s hard to put it in a calendar.

How far in advance do you book tests and shoots?

I book tests probably a week in advance, because [agencies] don’t know which models they’re going to be shooting until a week before. For editorials I book the stylist a few weeks to a month in advance. I don’t really book hair and makeup.

How do you go about booking models?

I’ll ask if I can shoot this girl and when she's in town I will. Agencies send the girls that are available and are in town. 

A lot of models that I shoot are my friends. One of my best friends was a model for seven years. As a photographer I have to have a connection with them or my photos won’t be anything special. It’s hard when you don’t speak the same language because they’re foreign and really new. I’ll ask them where are they from, become friends with them. 

The one thing that bothers me is that agencies won’t give you their phone number even when they’re confirmed So if she’s two hours late, I call [the agency] and they’re like, "Okay we’ll call her."

Photo: Franey Miller

Photo: Franey Miller

Do you usually shoot newer models since you're a newer photographer?

I don’t like shooting models under 18, even though I’m only 19. Some girls' first time being naked in front of a dude is on a shoot. I don’t shoot nudes often or ever, but it’s good to have people who have more life experience, you know? 

I like shooting people I would be friends with, so it’s easier not to shoot someone who’s 15. I’m not 15. My mindset’s not there. Today my girl said she’s 18. I didn’t believe her; she looks like she’s 12. Some girls look older, and they look like they’re 19 or 20 when they’re 15. 

If I could be a model I would not. I love being photographed, but I would never do it as a career. Your body is your moneymaker. That's terrifying. I remember seeing a quote once that said, "A woman has to find her own worth." That's why I don’t like criticism. I’m not going to let someone else tell me how good I am. I know how good I am.

And if you're booking jobs...

I’m not going to let someone else define me how good I am. These girls don’t need someone else defining how good they feel.

So how does that translate into shooting, given that you're approximately their age? I’d imagine that you’re shooting them with a more sympathetic eye.

I guess people are more comfortable with me, probably. Not every shoot is perfect, but when the model would wear the clothes and is able to move in them and be herself, that's good. Whenever I’m on a shoot, I’m like, "Move around, I don’t care." As long as you’re moving, I’ll make it work. 

I try to be as accommodating as possible. That's why shooting in the cold sucks... I’m not doing it for a while. It’s one thing when it’s November and it’s cold but not that bad and the photographer and stylist aren’t suffering. But when I’m suffering in the cold, it’s hard to keep the morale up. I love snow on eyelashes; I love winter light so much. But it’s hard to shoot when models are freezing cold. I had one shoot where my hands were bleeding because it was so cold, the model’s hands were bleeding. It's like, this is inhumane!

I'd also guess models would feel a little more comfortable with you since you're young and female, too.

I don’t know how I would feel if I were a 13-year-old girl coming up to a house with a 30-year-old man and being like, "Hi, I’m here to model for you!" 

What kind of direction do you give your models on set?

Hair and makeup? Nope. If a model has her hair straightened before a shoot I really want to make them wash it out. How you wake up is the most inspiring thing for me. 

When I’m on set I’m like, "Move around, I'll make it look good." I shoot really fast; a shoot is two hours maximum. I want it to flow as naturally as it can. I just tell them to relax and keep moving. Sometimes it’s really hard to get them moving. A girl will start out posing, and it’s like, "Come on, be awkward!" That would be awesome. Being a teenager is an awkward time. I want to preserve that.

In the last few years, young, female photographers like Petra Collins have gotten a lot of attention for photographing other young women. How do you see yourself fitting into that?

I have a lot of opinions on this. I feel like that kind of work where it’s girls in their underwear in their bedroom is very overdone. I feel like it’s too young. They're glamorizing this awkward age, and it’s good, but it’s not what all girls need to see. Rookie is awesome and really real, but outside of that, what are these girls seeing? Is being angsty in your bedroom really what we want to glamorize? That's the shitty part of being a teenager.

I want my work to be known, but I feel like they make these girls into female icons. And that’s not what I want. It’s like the Internet’s made it so that you have to be famous to be successful. What is Internet fame? Monopoly money? For real. A "like" is the press of a button.