Before Earl Miller became Penthouse magazine's most published photographer, he worked as an actor from 1962 until about 1967, when he bought his first camera and taught himself to shoot; the connection between man and camera was electric and immediate. He started shooting fellow actors' composites and head shots, and in 1969 became the official photographer for the Sonny and Cher Show, where he stayed for 3 and a 1/2 years. Other mainstream work soon followed, in advertising, shooting ad campaigns for Bugle Boy, Cavaricci and others, as well as big ad campaigns with Edward G. Robinson and Joan Collins, but also shooting Bob Hope's only album cover. "I loved the creative and financial empowerment that the camera gave me," he told AVN. "It was easy to promote and market myself to get work as opposed to waiting for the phone to ring as an actor." In 1972, he saw his first copy of Penthouse and was blown away. He submitted a shoot that was bought by Bob Guccione, and in short order a very close creative relationship developed between the two men, one that lasted more than thirty years, and, as Miller told us, "profoundly changed my life."
On the sad occasion of the Bob Guccione's passing Wednesday, following a long battle with lung cancer, Earl Miller wrote the following reminiscence of his time at Penthouse, and the seminal role that Guccione played in his life, and in the country's life.
I remember thanking Bob for giving me “a sandbox to play in.” He was a unique creative genius, as well as a marvelously generous and gentle man. He gave open and unqualified support to the creativity of those who were fortunate enough to work “under” him, or as he would have preferred to say, “with” him. Such was his generous spirit. Rather than force his creative people to shoot in a particular style, he encouraged photographers to find their own vision and reach their own level of artistry. He told me that he firmly believed the magazine was a richer experience for the reader if it presented a wider range of visual artistry. I was truly blessed to know him. He gave me the space to become the most published photographer in the history of Penthouse magazine. From the beginning to the end of his stewardship of Penthouse, he personally selected every image of every photo set in every issue. I was always moved by the desire to keep giving him one-of-a-kind and first-of-a-kind photo sets. I took it as a wonderful challenge to ‘surprise’ him with unique sets that may have helped make his editing hours entertaining, and help keep Penthouse at the cutting edge of erotic art.
I remember Bob saying at the very beginning of our creatively rich relationship, back in 1972, “The whole secret to publishing a successful men’s magazine is to reach the most discerning reader without losing the average slob.” Wow, so simply and eloquently put. As creative and unique as Bob’s visual genius was, he was also gifted with verbal eloquence. His statements were cryptically excellent. I remember them word for word to this day. Here are just a few more.
“The only thing that will distract a guy’s attention from a beautiful girl is the next beautiful girl.”
“The reason for the success of men’s magazines is that as a general rule (of course there are always exceptions to general rules) men are voyeurs and women are exhibitionists.”
Bob’s creative generosity was matched by his personal generosity. There was a time in the early eighties that I had some medical issues that laid me up for a bit. Shortly after, while sitting with him in his mansion, I told him of my situation and of my plans to expand a guest house on my property into a studio. He wrote me check for $10,000 on the spot, as a start for my studio. He said there would be no need to pay him back.
Another time, I was staying in his mansion while he hosted a party to celebrate the launch of the Japanese edition of Omni magazine. My brother, his wife and a business associate were in New York at the time. Bob had okayed inviting them to the party, and early on I introduced them to him. Two hours later they needed to leave. I looked over to see Bob surrounded by half a dozen people in active conversation and decided not to disturb him. As I escorted my brother and his group to the door, however, Bob noticed us and came over to say good night. He thanked each of them individually, and remembered each of their names. That level of caring blew me away. He hade met, greeted and chatted with at least 200 or more people between meeting them two hours earlier and saying goodbye.
Bob was a unique original artist and man who gave me and others the opportunity to develop and grow creatively. Despite achieving great wealth and power, he never lost his generous warmth and humility. I believe that is the main force that allowed me to thrive as an artist. His love of the creative process and his deep sense of empathy were bigger than his ego. I remember when I had sent in a photo shoot I did with Pet of the Year Andi Sue Irwin and some lions and tigers of my friend Randy Miller, the best trainer of big cats for movies. The set was published in December 1996 and contained some breathtaking shots of Andi Sue dangerously close to the big predators. I had sent Bob 300 8X10 black and white prints. He took the time to call me when he was editing the shoot to tell me that his only regret was that he couldn’t use all 300.
Bob’s courage was another defining characteristic of the man. He took on powerful people like Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggert, who he took down with that powerful piece in the magazine on the hooker he was caught with. He kept pushing the limits of sexual expression, which was something I was really proud to be a part of. In my view, society and the institutions of society use what I call the Unholy Trinity—guilt, fear and repression—to maintain control. He fought against that and broke new ground with a powerful mainstream magazine by publishing the first hardcore layout in a meaningful publication. It was after that that everyone else followed suit.
But Bob was very overtly political, too. He published investigative journalism of the highest level, with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists writing pieces on the CIA and the Mossad; he actually busted La Costa Country Club for being run by the mob. They sued him, in fact, and at the time it was the biggest libel suit in the country at $50 million. They thought they could get away with it because Penthouse was a 'skin magazine,' but he beat them in court.
I think a key piece of my story with Bob is the extent to which he encouraged me to develop my own web presence and build my own library. I have been able to take the skills and artistry he empowered in me to develop them and carry forward on my website, EarlMiller.com. My whole approach to sexual expression, which I developed and honed shooting for Penthouse, is to celebrate the joy and the fantasy of sex. Rather than try to own and control me, he allowed me to thrive and succeed on my own. Were it not for his generosity of spirit and his genuine concern for me, my site would not exist. People who discovered and appreciated me through Penthouse can find that same approach to sexual expression in my site. People who are looking for a fresh joyous approach to sex can find that on my site. One thing I shared with Bob is an absolute love for the magic and mystique of women. It isn't simply that he gave me the freedom to express myself. It is that we both revere and respect women.
Here is what Bob said about my work: “Miller has not only mastered but transcended his medium. His best work celebrates the complex and enduring quality of a woman’s beauty. His vision is both elegant and sympathetic".
I add this quote because I believe it reveals the profound sensitivity with which Bob saw women. I also believe this is his most important legacy, and I hope that in my own small way I am carrying forward that legacy on earlmiller.com.
I will miss Bob Guccione, but the magic of his free spirit thrives in all the people whose lives he genuinely touched.