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An Interview with Ken Miller

Ken Miller's 1995 book, Open All Night, is an explicit, at times brutal, and occasionally comic look at the underbelly of San Francisco in the 80s. The book prompted us...

by Bruno Bayley
15 July 2011, 12:00am

Ken Miller's 1995 book, Open All Night, is an explicit, at times brutal, and occasionally comic look at the underbelly of San Francisco in the 80s. The book prompted us to hunt him down for this year's Photo Issue, and when we found him via his wedding photography website we discovered he had a ton of fantastic unpublished work. We called him on the day he was re-flooring his back room with some Asian Walnut, so the timing wasn’t ideal, but he was happy to talk about the Tenderloin, San Francisco skins, and getting very, very stoned at medicinal marijuana dispensaries.

VICE: Open All Night is the book that made us want to get in touch with you, but when I found your website I was pretty unsure it was the same Ken Miller. You do a lot of wedding photography now.
Yeah man. I have to bury that old stuff. Those brides get scared when they see that.

How old were you when you started on Open All Night?
I started shooting on the streets when I was 13. That stuff in San Francisco, I moved there in 1983, I guess. I was living in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, where people just hung out on the streets. I would go out to shoot and they would all be there for me. I built up relationships in just a few weeks, and then they carried over into months and years.

William T. Vollmann wrote the text for Open All Night; what was your relationship with him at the time?
He was a friend of a friend, in about ’83. He was living real close to me in the Haight. We just hung out. People wouldn't hang out around the street-people with me, but he would. He was a writer–but that didn't mean much. We just hung out. Most of the stories in the first book developed around the Haight-Ashbury district.

Open All Night has a lot of the images one would expected when they think of Haight-Ashbury—the hippies and so on—but there’s also a lot of material in there that’s far more brutal. Lots of skinheads, drug addicts, and people like that.
Well, the skinhead culture arose in about ’84. That’s when it kicked off; they were emulating what was happening in Europe. The media and people latched onto it. They used to dress like that in the Haight, but it probably didn't go beyond that. They were just street kids, some of them just old enough to be away from home, and some from broken homes. They banded together that way. A lot came from the punk rock scene; they changed from Mohawks to skinheads. I mean, it’s pretty powerful to tattoo a swastika on your face, shave your head, and do a sieg heil. It got them lots of attention.
Most of them never followed through with any of the Nazi racism stuff. Haight street had an abundance of different groups of people—street alcoholics, group home kids, people from mental institutions in halfway homes, hippies, and then all the normal working class families who just lived there.

Where were the rest of the photos taken?
Open All Night also covers a part of San Francisco called the Tenderloin, commonly known as the TL. It's a place filled with ex-cons, prostitution, heroin, crack, and other drugs. Haight has a bit of that, but not much. So most of that type of stuff in the book is from the TL. It's considered a pretty dangerous place. There are psychopaths down there; you get out of prison, and they give you a voucher for a hotel. It's a place for day-to-day existence—very cheap hotels, a room for a night, a week, or a month, with a bathroom down the hall. Most people in this country live month-to-month at least, but there, it’s day-to-day. You are out there doing what you have to do to support your habit, often a drug habit of some sort, and pay for your room.

To me, it was more interesting than the Haight. The Haight was adolescence and the TL was adulthood. You have all kinds there. One guy I met there told me, “If you take my picture I’ll throw a brick through your camera,” half an hour later I was taking his picture, and two years later I was still hanging out with him.

There's another photo in the book of a lady with rosary beads stuck up her vagina. Well, I met her in the Haight when she was a teenager; she was hanging out with hippies back then. I met her in the TL in ’88 or ‘89—she was a straight up crack addict.

Tell me more about the photos from our Photo Issue.
That was a totally separate project, it was a part of something for the New York Times magazine. Back then, the state wasn't arresting people for selling marijuana to those who needed it for medical reasons, but the Feds would go in and raid these places. It was a very gray area. That place had three floors in it, and each floor had a different strength of weed. You could go in, sit down, and smoke with other people

Which direction did the “strength to floor system” go?
It was stronger the higher up you went. But you could go into the ground floor, buy what you wanted and leave, or you could hang out. I went there a lot of times. I am sure you have been to lots of bars and stuff, but this one was very different. I had my cameras and lights, so I drew some attention, but people were really friendly. They were all, “Come here, sit down!” and you know, “have smoke, smoke up.” People to people, floor to floor—everyone wanted to get me stoned, and you know I hated to say no, right? So I was like, pretty high. I did that every day for a week. Everyone was really nice and mellow. It was like nothing I have ever experienced.

So it was still a federal crime to be there then?
Yeah, and it still is. The states have given permission in Colorado, Oregon… I don't know where else. But in Colorado it’s pretty abundant, and as long as you have a medical marijuana card, you can get what you want.

Illegal drugs cover all those not made by pharmaceutical companies to sell over the counter. But it wasn't until 1971 when Richard Nixon was really pissed off with low-income people in ghettos and inner cities that he started the “war on drugs,” to take away the pastimes of people from inner cities. The Vietnam war was also going on, and all these drugs were pouring in through military connections. When Nixon declared the war on drugs, it escalated things to a level he never predicted. If you want to get a job somewhere, you have to be tested for drugs. Drug testing is a multi-billion dollar business. Even if you work all day, come home and smoke a joint on your own time, chances are you won’t get a job. You have to pay to get a piss test if the company won't do it for you. If you have an accident at work they will test you, and if you test hot you won’t get your comp, or at least you will have to fight like hell to get it.