Based in Los Angeles, Michael Muller is one of Hollywood’s most dominant photographers. His images regularly grace the cover of Entertainment Weekly, big-budget movies posters (think Iron Man, Aquaman and Captain Marvel) and album covers (see Rihanna’s Unapologetic). Juxtaposing this studio work, Muller spends as much time as possible in the outdoors, most recently through documenting ocean life, specifically, sharks in open water. Though these subjects could not be more different, Muller’s approach is constant. In all forms, through his vision and execution, he favors a vivid, unmistakably charged style that’s solely his own.
Today, Muller is most often found with a Leica in-hand (his preferred choice for the superior glass). But, before he had shelves stocked with his favorite German products, Muller got his first waterproof camera at 10 during his childhood in Saudi Arabia. “I remember taking a photograph of a photo in the National Geographic of a shark, then showed all my young friends,” he says. He eventually copped to the lie that it was his own image. “But I did see the power of photography just with that. I remember it really had an impact on me,” he says.
From his early days, Muller was hustling. When he relocated to Northern California as a pre-teen, he started documenting snowboarding and sneaking into rock concerts to shoot musicians. “I was in seventh grade and it was sort of the birth of snowboarding,” he says. “I started photographing friends snowboarding, which quickly led to shooting professionals and getting published.”
At 18, Muller moved to Los Angeles to kick-start his career as it’s known today. He began by shooting test shots for models. “They needed pictures, so I just shot people, sometimes four, five, six a day,” he recalls. “And I didn’t throw them up against a wall, bam, bam, in and out. I treated each one like it was the cover of Vogue.”
Though not linear, Muller’s success was no accident. From a ten-year-old snorkeling with a film camera to shooting pro-snowboarders and musicians, then actors, movie posters, album covers — and now great white sharks: it was gumption more than anything that got him here. “When I was making my book with Taschen, my editor turned to me and said, ‘Do you know what I notice about all of the photographers that we do books with? All of you, you’re all hustlers.’” Muller’s response: “You have to be.” That maverick style is infused in each of his photos.
Over the last decade or so, Muller’s personal attention has moved to focus more on the oceans. His work with sharks has culminated in his much-lauded simply-titled book, Sharks, released in 2018 as well as a years-in-the-making VR project. His mediums seemingly could not be more different — two contrasting species, in two opposite environments — but Muller has taken his rather electric style and applied it across the board. “I’m constantly searching to do something that I’ve never seen before,” he says. “I thought, ‘I want to shoot a shark like I shoot Iron Man.’ And so how do you do that? I can’t bring a shark in [a studio]. It’ll be dead. So I have to bring this to the shark.” That’s involved creating an entire studio underwater, strobe lights and all.
“I think all of my work sort of infuses on one another.” Being bold in life and art has been his throughline. “A really good, striking image, you can feel something when you look at it, whether it’s a shark or a person.” And it’s been his ability to breakdown his own fears and overcome the noise of his surrounding to create work that’s transcended norms.