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Photographer’s portraits of Steppenwolf performers on exhibit at Willis Tower

Steppenwolf photographer Sandro Miller.

Steppenwolf photographer Sandro Miller.

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To view samples of Miller’s work, go to

If you happen to be in the lobby of the Willis Tower in downtown Chicago anytime during the next three months, you’re bound to notice 63 portraits of performers from the city’s vaunted Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

“They are very euphoric images,” said Sandro Miller, the celebrated photographer, of this exhibition of his work.

Miller — who grew up in Elgin — has cause to be feeling pretty happy himself lately, bouncing back after an eight-month battle with cancer last year to resume a busy career at full speed.

While fighting the disease, Miller worked on the book “Sandro Raw Steppenwolf,” a collection of images of Steppenwolf actors that came out last summer. As the title indicates, the black and white shots are hardly Hollywood glamorous. They reflect the grittiness of the troupe, and include both a demonic and a ghostly John Malkovich.

Miller has been working with the company for more than 15 years after marketing director Tim Evans asked him if he would consider doing playbills, marquee and other publicity shots.

“I told him it would be a great honor,” Miller said.

Not so scary

Miller still creates the provocative images used to promote the plays performed at the theater along Halsted Street, including for the current production of Nobel-winning playwright Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party.”

One portrait is of Ian Barford as protagonist Stanley, his glasses shattered, holding a drumstick, a maniacal look on his face, with the trappings of a happy English seaside resort on the wall behind him.

“It asks, ‘What happened that led to the outburst with the drum?’” Miller said.

Miller said most of the Steppenwolf actors are a pleasure to work with, and he enjoys pushing to create memorable images.

Some, like John Mahoney, are shy in front of the camera and don’t like to be photographed.

Not so the aforementioned Malkovich, who has become a partner in creative crime with Miller.

In early February, Malkovich will be back in Chicago to perform in “The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer,” at Symphony Center. The piece tells the tale of homicidal maniac Jack Unterweger through monologues and musical arias. It seems aptly Malkovich, given his on-screen persona.

As scary as Malkovich can be when performing, when working with him, “He is so open and willing to give,” Miller said.

Malkovich will be dropping into Miller’s Chicago studio to collaborate on further pieces for a gallery show the two are putting together to be held in Paris in 2014.

Malkovich also starred in Miller’s 2011 experimental short film about a troubled middle age man, “Butterflies,” which was lauded at the Saatchi and Saatchi Best New Directors Showcase at the Cannes Film Festival.

Miller also is working on a sequel to his 5-minute HD video piece, “Joy Ride,” which was produced by Nikon to showcase its D800 camera.

Miller said he has no plans to make a feature length movie. But when asked if he would direct another “Con Air” movie, should Malkovich ask, “For him, I would do that. I would do pretty much anything,” he said with a laugh.

Miller is planning a show at Loyola University in Chicago and a visit this year to Morocco, to take pictures of working people, in part in homage to one of his idols Irving Penn, whose work Miller discovered at the age of 16 in American Photography Magazine.

Elgin connection

That led to classes at Elgin Community College and a career that has melded commercial and artistic projects of all sorts, from ad campaigns for TV shows to a book about Cuban boxers.

While Miller never graduated from ECC, the college recently recognized him with an honorary degree. And last fall, Miller had a exhibition in the college’s Safety-Kleen Gallery entitled “Provocative Imperfections”.

“Elgin still feels like home. It developed who I am, with the ethnic diversity of the east side and the blue collar ethic of the town,” Miller said.

Miller said he frequently returns to Elgin to visit five close friends he’s had since childhood, along with his daughter, granddaughter, and stepfather, Les Pace, leader of the Pacemakers big band.

“They’re still playing,” Miller said.

There is no stopping for Miller and his passion for photography either.

“It can change everything. The images captured educate us about the world, about its good and its evils such as war. It’s the biggest educator in the world. And our work is to share the souls of other people,” Miller said.

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