The first professional photograph Michael Muller ever took was of a shark. Well, not a photo of a shark, exactly—it was a photo of a photo of a shark, in the pages of a National Geographic magazine he picked up as a kid. And it wasn’t a professional camera he was using back then, but a sporty yellow Minolta Weathermatic he got from his dad while his family was living in Saudi Arabia. All technicalities aside, that one snap set him on a course that would eventually bring him full circle to where he is now: Muller is one of the most sought-after photographers in Hollywood, who’s shot campaigns for dozens of blue-chip brands; created some of the most recognizable movie posters of the last 10 years; turned his lens on everyone from Joaquin Phoenix to Rihanna; and yes, even captured images of a great white, up close and personal.
Muller spent his early childhood in Northern California, until his engineer father moved the family to Saudi Arabia, which kicked off years of mind-expanding travel. “Every three months we’d look at a map and just go,” he says. “I’d been to about 55 countries before I started seventh grade.” The impact of those years abroad can’t be understated: nighttime camel rides around the Sphinx and bartering in bazaars shaped the way he understood—and occasionally misunderstood—the world. “Back in the States, I went to buy an Atari,” says Muller. “It was $99 and I told the salesman, ‘I’ll give you $80!’ The guy was like, ‘Dude, it’s $99.’ And I was like, ‘Alright, $85.’ It took me a while to catch on.” As he got older, Muller remained fascinated by photography and began to experiment, shooting what he saw around him—snowboarders, his friends in bands.
He went to college, intending to learn the finer points of photography, but Muller was quickly disillusioned. “I asked the professors, ‘Why do I need a diploma? Do I have to show it to get jobs?’ and they said no. So I was like, ‘Screw this’ and I left.” He soon started shooting models’ portfolios, charging $50 per roll. “That quickly went to $100 a roll, then $150,” he says. “I actually got paid to learn, instead of paying a school to teach me. And I never assisted anyone—I didn’t want to watch someone doing what I wanted to do and suggest ideas, then watch them get all the glory. It was all self-taught.”
Muller had loved sharks since childhood—“They’re these alpha predators that rule the ocean,” he says with admiration—but it wasn’t until a 2009 location shoot that he learned more about humans’ destructive relationship with them. “I didn’t know we were killing 100 million sharks every year,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’ve helped sell billions of dollars of movies, Nikes, Speedo products and Range Rovers. Maybe I can help sell this animal in a different way.’ ” The result was the gorgeous 2016 Taschen book Sharks; it led to a charity-driven clothing line with Billabong, a TV show for the Travel Channel and a wheat-paste campaign in collaboration with Shepard Fairey. “Whenever Paul Watson, one of the original founders of Greenpeace, does speaking engagements,” says Muller, “people ask, ‘What are you going to do about the blue whale?’ And he says, ‘What are you going to do about the blue whale? Am I supposed to be the only one out here saving them?’ That really hit me—I realized my photography is my gift; that’s what I know. My whole purpose was to change people’s perception of sharks.”
His affinity for those deep-sea creatures also inspired him to create the first underwater strobe light. “I obviously can’t bring a shark into the studio,” he says, “so I decided to bring the studio to the shark.” But the first prototype was a bust, and an expensive one at that—he ended up paying $10,000 for an unusable contraption. “I probably shed a few tears,” he admits. Still, Muller persisted. The second prototype, from a new designer, was an immediate success. And just in time: He received it the day before he was slated to leave for a two-week trip to the Galapagos to shoot an underwater-watch campaign. Muller now has multiple patents on his strobe lights. “To invent something that didn’t exist before is amazing,” he says. “And to be the only one in the world with them: That’s not something you can say too often.”
While Muller stays plenty busy with paid gigs, he’s always pursuing some personal project on the side; a particularly serendipitous one even led to a career breakthrough. “I was driving 10 or 11 years ago and saw this guy sitting at a light in a full Stormtrooper getup,” says Muller. “The next day I went back to Mann’s Chinese Theater, where people dress up in character and pose with tourists for $5, and started documenting these guys. Batman and I went into an alley—he busted out a pipe and I took a photo. Joaquin Phoenix bought a big print of that photograph, which is actually called ‘Batman Smoking Crack.’ Then the head of marketing for Fox, Tony Sella, saw it at Joaquin’s house. Tony checked out my website, called me up and said, ‘Get over here!’ I went over to his office and he gave me the X-Men job on the spot. What started out as a personal project led to me getting movie posters.”
In an attempt to share some of the wealth of knowledge he’s banked over the years, in 2014 Muller and fellow portrait photographer Patrick Hoelck started Photo School, a collection of online courses and tutorials designed to help fledgling artists learn the ropes. “I had enough assistants come out of really prestigious art photography schools and owe $300,000 and then say they learned more working on the set with me in two months than they did in four years at school,” says Muller. “I wanted to help people and give them the ability to learn at a fraction of the cost.” Of course, some elements of photography are more abstract and ephemeral. “The technique is just one part, and it’s actually a small one,” he says. “Problem solving, thinking outside the box—that you can’t teach.”
In the 30 years he’s been producing absorbing, enigmatic images, Muller has had countless standout moments: his work with animals (be they sharks, lions or horses), shooting his first movie poster (for 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand), his work as a UN global advocate or the two years he spent documenting outlaw biker gang the Vagos. While on set, Muller keeps the energy high by blasting upbeat music mixes made by friends, or even inviting DJs to spin. “When you’re on a shoot and ask celebrities to put on music, they usually don’t want to give up their phone,” he explains. “Or they’re embarrassed that you’ll hear they’re listening to Justin Bieber.”
These days Muller spends an inordinate amount of time traveling for gigs (“I can get packed for any trip in about five to seven minutes,” he says). Off the clock, he spends his hours with his wife and kids, surfing or practicing another favorite hobby, karate. “I study shodokan,” he says, “which isn’t about attacking or retreating but being in the moment. For years people asked me if I photographed sharks because I was an adrenaline junkie, and I’d say ‘No, not at all.’ But I couldn’t really describe or explain it. Then a couple of years ago I was underwater with this great white shark and it hit me: ‘Oh my god, this is why I do this.’ That’s the purest in-the-moment place I’ve ever been. You’re not thinking about 10 seconds in front of you, or any of your history. You’re present.”