The Story Behind Steven Miller’s Brilliant Quarantine Portraits
You see a wall of white bricks, a big green hedge, a skirmish of flowers. A pair of windows. In them: two faces, bearded, behind glass, squinting in sun. They're isolated in the window frames from each other, isolated in the camera's frame from the world. They’re looking right at you. They look depressed, catching a sliver of sun, about to be consumed by the dark rooms behind them. They look bored.
On April 6, Steven Miller, a local photographer, posted this photo on his Instagram with a brief caption: “Corianton and Keith #pandemicportraits #seattle.” By then, social-distancing photography had given rise to a portmanteau: “porchtraits.” Photographers were coaxing people onto their stoops, their lawns, and holding portrait sessions. To these images, the context of quarantine adds a sense of longing. That’s not so strange. Photographs are inherently about distance, from a place, a person, a past.
You can find this longing in Miller’s images, which he’s now dubbed From the Distance: Portraits Under Quarantine. It’s in the subjects’ gazes, in the long lenses he uses. But as the photos have stacked up—on his Instagram, he’s posted one each day since—their emotional range has expanded, and they’ve resonated widely. His Instagram followers nearly doubled. Wired UK, Crosscut, Q13 Fox, and The Stranger have all run articles.
Click through the whole series and you’ll see families staring through glass with their children. People posed in windows in their underwear. People looking pensive. People looking confident, confrontational, afraid, bemused, bored, resilient—sometimes all at once. Quarantine is an emotional muck, and From the Distance displays it all, “the loneliness and the anxiety and the frustration and, dare I say, the horniness of folks being trapped inside alone all the time,” Miller told me over the phone last week.
I was interviewing him for an article in our summer issue. I wanted a quick quote about the series to attach to one of the portraits. I also hoped to understand why these images resonated with me more than any pandemic art I’ve seen. Yes, there’s a high level of craft—panes of glass alive with reflected skies, two people partitioned in separate squares of a block window, supernaturally bright flower set against a dark room—but they also contain immense empathy.
When I called, Miller told me his friend Alicia Berger, a video artist, was about to release a six-minute documentary about the photos, “Portraits Under Pressure,” which she did on Sunday. Toward the end comes a revelation, something Miller told me when I asked what prompted the photos: “In December, I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.” Two months later the pandemic was underway, and he needed a way to cope.
In 2004, Miller and Berger were some of the first artists to move into the Tashiro Kaplan lofts. Pioneer Square was changing. The old story: rising rents, artists getting pushed out. The lofts popped up as a way to offer affordable space.
Miller had spent the 1990s playing bass in ¡TchKung!, a woozily aggressive industrial art band. But since he was young he’d been enamored of photography. He got a degree in it from Seattle Central College, then set up a studio. In 2004, he made Milky, which looks like a series of Richard Avedon photos, except the people are having milk poured over their faces. Miller's work grew elaborate—expressing through sets and costumes, often in ways that explore queer identity.
Berger and Miller have carried on a friendship since. This past December, they met for dinner at Café Flora, Madison Valley’s vegetarian haven. Miller had just gotten his diagnosis. When they met, he hadn’t been to see the oncologist yet. They “had a moment over that,” Berger says, “a little teary moment.” He would find out later that the life expectancy (he has neuroendocrine cancer, a rare form with an unknown cause) is not as bad as he’d first thought—five to 30 years. He’s now 51, which means he might live to an average age anyway. But the diagnosis comes with surgeries and compounding uncertainties. “I’ll just say that I don’t have any expectations of leading a long, comfortable life," he says.
He started going to doctors, getting tests, and grappling with his mortality. “And then two months later here comes this coronavirus." He spent the first three weeks of quarantine lonely, “paralyzed... just like everybody was.” He’d been laid off from his part-time job as a graphic designer a week in. But eventually the pandemic "took me out of myself. It showed me that my own fears about mortality were being shared with the population at large.”
He was quarantined alone and needed a way to connect. He posted on Facebook that he wanted to take peoples’ portraits. About a hundred friends responded. So he headed out with a ladder, a camera, and some headphones. He directs the subjects over speakerphone. The sessions are over in 15 minutes, maybe a half hour. “It’s not very much of a social visit.” It’s enough, though. “I’m actually in a pretty good space mentally because of making these portraits and seeing my friends so much. I don’t feel as isolated.” As he says in Portraits Under Pressure, “I come home, and I have four hours of work to make a beautiful picture of a person I love.”
In April, Berger started seeing Miller's portraits online. She grew increasingly interested, as she noticed "more of a gay aesthetic, more of what he's done in the past" emerging. She asked if she could follow him with a camera as he worked—setting up a tripod on a ladder in the street, editing at home. She asked him about his diagnosis at the end, unsure if they’d want it in the documentary. He hadn’t made it public yet. Many people didn’t know. But they decided to put it in. It was part of the project's impetus and allowed him to turn “his feelings about himself outward,” Berger said.
To that end, he’s let the project grow, connect with other artists. The writer Katie Kurtz is interviewing some of his subjects, such as poet Sarah Galvin, and running those interviews on the Capitol Hill art gallery the Factory’s Instagram. Kurtz and Miller want to turn the photos and interviews into a book, ideally one that a local arts organization like Seattle Art Museum might buy. (Also, he’s now selling prints—you can contact him through his website if interested.)
He wants to create an archive of his community, “my extended chosen family,” in this moment—to show them as they live now. “They say history is written by the winners,” Miller says, “and so marginalized communities are often forgotten.” With the economic outlook dire, he figures some of his subjects—artists, musicians, writers, most of whom are LGBTQ+—will have to move away. Even Berger told me when her lease is up in a few months, the building will probably increase rent, and cause her and her wife to move. Miller's most recent pictures are of people who have already left, for Bremerton, Kingston, Indianola.
American culture often talks of queerness in terms of visibility, “in the closet” or “out.” In these photos, Miller looks in on a more literal enclosure. He told me his way of dealing with this imposed invisibility is having people “come as they want to be seen.” Some wear very little, a pair of briefs. Some wear shirts with pointed messages: “I Want a Dyke for President.” Seattle artist and dancer Elvin Nathan Jones (above) wore a traditional African outfit and Miller chose to photograph him through a window with a Black Lives Matter sign, “to reinforce his pride in heritage.”
Beyond that Miller relies on the connection between his and the subjects’ gazes. “Queerness is often associated with frivolity or fabulousness,” he told me in an email. The way people look at the camera—intimately, seriously, from their homes—is “an invitation to the viewer to consider queerness as a lived experience and not only one that manifests on stages or Pride parade floats.”
He plans to post an image a day until quarantine ends. He’ll keep toting his camera to Seattle streets, keep setting up his tripod on a ladder’s little shelf—a precarious rig to capture a moment in which everything is precarious—and making photos about what it means to see each other.
Updated on June 9 to reflect the correct spelling of Elvin Nathan Jones's name—not Elvis.