Clearly pleased that his old uniform still fits—sort of—a paunchy World War II flier strikes a dashing pose before an attic mirror in one of the pictures. Another shows a museum guard and a janitor playing checkers in front of Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait. In a third, a barber blow-dries a toupee while the owner waits in the chair.
These slices of American life seem lifted right off the cover of the old Saturday Evening Post. But the source is not Norman Rockwell; it’s a talented, if mercurial, Hollywood-based photographer named Reid Miles. And while Miles’ blatantly Rockwellian photos are not used to sell magazines, they have been used to peddle almost everything else: cigarettes (Raleigh), motorcycles (Kawasaki), cornflakes (Kellogg’s), cars (Buick and Chevrolet), pineapple (Dole)—even record album covers (Chicago).
“Actually, a lot of what I do isn’t Rockwell at all,” says Miles, “just old-time. There’s so little charm in the world today, people are hungry for it.” For bringing this nostalgic touch to ads, Miles earns $2,500 to $3,000 per layout, making him one of the country’s most successful commercial photographers. “Whatever Reid charges, he’s worth it,” says Ellen Merlo, brand manager for Phillip Morris, manufacturers of Virginia Slims. For his Slims campaign, Miles is being paid $30,000. Models and props are extra. Currently his business is grossing nearly $1 million a year.
To reach that affluence, Miles went through some lean years. Born in Chicago, he moved with his family to Long Beach, Calif. during the Depression. Soon after, his parents split—leaving his mother to support Reid and a younger sister by working in a San Pedro cannery. Miles joined the Navy in the final months of World War II and found a soft job as a captain’s chauffeur, which he detested. After his discharge he enrolled at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. Two years later he headed for New York and a job as a paste-up man at Esquire. A sulfurous character—”I’ve always been violent in my opinions; there are no shades of gray in my life”—Miles worked up to art director but was “fired from every job” until he turned to photography in the mid-1960s.
He shot pictures for Look and accounts like Eastern Airlines and De Beers diamonds before going home to California in 1971 (“In New York I got tired of stepping on dog manure every day”). The turning point in his career occurred when he was shooting food stories for Home, a Sunday supplement of the Los Angeles Times. Instead of “sterile people fixing perfect meals,” Miles portrayed them “the way they really live—with dirty dishes and a leaky roof.” Once he began a series of ads for Kawasaki in 1974, he fully refined the Rockwellian style.
“If you’re a good photographer you have to be a good storyteller,” insists Miles, who directs each photo session as if it were a feature movie. He keeps elaborate sets in his all-white Hollywood studio and draws on a stable of character actors—”real people with real faces who can turn on in front of a camera.”
Miles lives in a duplex bachelor apartment built by Warner Bros, for its silent screen stars, but apparently finds little joy in anything but work. He is not close to his family; he rarely relaxes. When he took a house in Spain, he says, “I sat there for three days and was climbing the walls. For me work is an upper, a great high. I have no personal life. I don’t want it.”