Jeff Miller shares his favorite shots from 25 years as a campus photographer.
Jeff Miller has spent exactly half his lifetime working at UW-Madison.
He’s captured triumph and tragedy at Camp Randall, visits from presidents and world leaders, and the groundbreaking work of UW researchers.
He also knows secrets about the beauty and complexity of campus that most students, faculty, and, heck, probably even Abe Lincoln can’t guess. (Do you know that there are exactly forty-five minutes each year when the light is just right to capture Bascom Hill’s “Sifting and Winnowing” plaque? Miller does — and he knows when those forty-five minutes will happen.)
But even twenty-five years after moving to Madison to accept the position of photographer for what’s now called University Communications, Miller refuses to settle into a routine.
“Campus is like a big playground. I challenge myself not to walk the same path every day and to look at things differently, especially at different times of the year.”
“The greatest things about this job for me are the challenges,” he says. “And, fortunately, they give me a lot of room to play.”
Miller fell in love with photography sometime around seventh grade, when he got his hands on the family camera and spent an afternoon making pictures.
“I came home and asked for more film,” he recalls. “And my parents were kind of horrified — this was the era when one roll of film was the annual chronicle of holidays, birthdays, and major events.”
From there, he joined an after-school photography club, took community classes, and became nationally recognized through Kodak’s scholastic awards.
Miller says photography helped him through tough times in high school.
Shortly after receiving his bachelor of fine arts from the University of Dayton in Ohio, he began working in its public relations office. “At that time, I was doing a lot of fine art photography and was interested in portraiture,” he says. “But I also had a stellar photojournalism instructor, and I became really interested in the idea of using photography to communicate.”
Four years later, when the UW’s News and Information Department began searching for a photographer, the photo editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education shared Miller’s name and portfolio. Within a month of accepting the position, he’d packed up a U-Haul and moved to a state he’d never visited and where he didn’t know anyone. Like many freshmen, he initially found the UW enormous and impersonal.
“It was not an easy transition,” Miller says. “I went from feeling like a bigger fish in a smaller pond to being a guppy in the ocean.”
But the UW offered new and exciting technology, and he was excited to get his hands on it. That desire continues to push him today.
“I was doing stuff in a wet darkroom — black-and-white, hand-processing prints daily,” he remembers. “The UW had an automated print processor, so it took about ninety seconds in the darkroom. I was dumbfounded that I could take ten different images and print ten copies of each in one afternoon, something that used to take me days.”
A thousand words, and a story.
Even with the evolution from black-and-white film and color slides to digital ones and zeros, Miller says storytelling is the key to making even the most mundane details of daily life seem a little more magical.
With every image, he tries to deliver a context: something that can elevate its story or deepen the viewer’s understanding. To tell a campus story, for example, he might find a subtle, cardinal-red color motif or capture a clever play on words. Context is also important for accuracy and teasing out sometimes-hidden truths, such as learning the real reason Miller climbed to the top row of Camp Randall to take the iconic shot of an ecstatic crowd after the 2010 football victory over Ohio State.
“Photography is more than just the picture,” he explains. “It’s my job to understand the university’s missions and visually support them.”
As Miller approaches his silver anniversary as one of the university’s key storytellers and curators of history, we asked him to share the stories behind some of his favorite and most famous photographs.
Read about the stories behind some of Miller's photos.
“This is my new favorite riff on the chair. To me, this is what it feels like to be on the Terrace. It was warm and in the moment … personal but impersonal. Everyone’s got his or her little space. The icon pops, even though it wasn’t the central part of the picture. Technically, there are a lot of things that would make this picture ‘wrong,’ but it felt right to me.”
“The Dalai Lama keeps coming back here because of his connection with Dr. Richard Davidson, professor of psychology. That’s the real story. And who else gets to be at Olin House for brunch with the Dalai Lama? Everyone was taken aback that his holiness was getting his own food — will he eat healthfully or go for dessert?”
“I’ve tried to photograph this plaque on Bascom so many times … There is one time during the winter, sometime in January when the morning light is low and the plaque is fully illuminated for about forty-five minutes. I’ve tried using different lighting, shooting in the day or at night, and re-creating hard and soft light, but I’ve never been able to artificially re-create that quality of light.”
“This photograph from the open door of a helicopter during a football game is another of my most popular photos. It’s such a privilege. Who gets to do this? It took an incredible amount of coordination to work this out with the Athletic Department, the helicopter pilot, and the FAA for a waiver to fly near the stadium during a game. We are literally up to the edge of the security zone, because you cannot fly over the stadium during a public event or go any lower than three hundred feet.”
“This [top] is among my most widely used photos. People think this is a really high-energy, exciting moment. But there’s a reason I was really high up in the stadium: I was down on the field under the goal post in 1993 when the stadium stampede occurred and numerous fans were injured after being pinned against the lower student section railings. In 2010, I got out of the thick of the crowd for fear of the goalpost coming down and being lost in another out-of-control crowd.”
“I value the opportunity — really, the privilege — to take pictures for the university,” he says. “That’s something all people search for in their career: to do something that’s meaningful to them. And being able to connect with an educational environment that I believe in and support — and get paid to do that — is pretty special.”