Steven Miller has been producing beautiful and brave photographic work for 20 years, exploring themes like queer resistance and resilience, the sublime, and hot gay sex.
hisseries, Subsume, borrows from all of those interests, as it centers on naked figures suspended in underwater scenes shot within Lake Washington. The photos capture the sublimity of skinny dipping in the classical sense: The beauty of bodies both aquatic and human, the terror of the unknown waters, and the childlike curiosity driving us forward despite our fears.
In our conversation, Miller dives deep into his relationship with the lake, and the “tiny queer bubble” through which he views the world.
Tell me about your history and relationship with Lake Washington.
I’ve been swimming naked in Lake Washington for three decades. I love that the water beneath me is over a hundred feet deep, and feel exhilarated knowing I am completely responsible for my own safety. Out there with sky and water in all directions and Mt. Tahoma floating in the south, I am fully alive.
I have an outsized love for this lake, given its past and current status as a superfund site. It’s also relatively dangerous to swim out far like I do. Jet skis, canoes, and big-ass boats have sped by close and scared me plenty.
That’s terrifying. At the risk of sounding like your mother, please be safe and don’t die.
He has! Don’t promise! Some of my favorite swims happen after midnight, with black waves glistening under a full moon and friends singing next to me. The frigid water, the darkness around us, and the ever-present knowledge of the abyss below is as scary as it is exciting. I have no intention of dying out there, and I have lifeguard training since high school. I am always grateful when my feet touch the bottom after a long swim.
The images from you Subsume series are so ethereal, so otherworldly, how did you come to create this beautiful body of work?
I only discovered prescription goggles existed last year, and they’ve allowed me to see clearly underwater for the first time since childhood. It was a revelation! I’ve been swimming with my friend Douglas for years, but for the first time I saw his form of him and the way light reflected and refracted around him. I knew I had to document him and others. I rented underwater camera equipment and learned how to make images in the lake.
Nudity feels totally essential to these portraits, what are you aiming to express with that creative decision?
Swimwear immediately dates the photographs, and I like to make images that exist out of time and place. Also, if I’m honest, I really love nude bodies in all their forms.
It shows, there’s such a celebratory tone, it’s all so affirming.
I’m glad that comes through! So many of the subjects have their own relationship with the lake, and it was great to capture their exuberance under water.
I’m really drawn to certain details in these images—body positions, bubbles, sun rays, the addition of flowers. How much creative control do you impose over your final results, versus just going with the “flow”?
I directed folks for a large part, and a handful of swimmers had their own agenda that I was happy to document. Once a spot is picked with the sun in the right place, that flow state comes, and it feels like a collaboration every time. Greta brings flowers to the lake every time she comes, so it seemed obvious to make that part of her image of her.
How lovely. Did any other images get customized to the subject?
My friend Griff wanted to appear as the hung man, and local artist Douglas Ridings worked with me five or six times to make images at the bottom of the lake.
I see you as always pushing your art forward, always cutting edge. Whether you’re playing bass in the revolutionary post-industrial/punk band ¡Tchkung!, photographing yourself marrying a giant turd, dumping milk on your friends, or burning porn… what’s the common thread for you?
I love archetypal figures doing ambiguous things. If there’s a sense of absurdity or impossibility to the image, even better. For decades trickster stories were some of my favorites to tell, and the last four years I’ve been working my way through the elements. I’m drawn to the mythical, and I love centering queerness in unexpected places. Every time the camera comes out, I think of it as a tiny queer bubble where anything can happen.
You’re a tiny queer bubble.
I say make your own queer utopia. In this completely fucked up world we live in, happiness feels like a radical act. I spent years being depressed and feeling out of place. Making art gave me a voice that let me find my people. Those friends are my lifeline on this planet, and most of them are in my photographs over the last 20 years. Every queer person who finds my art online and writes me a letter – it feels like I’m doing my part to spread the word: you matter, you belong. Let’s make our short time here shine as bright as we can.