Last month, on a warm autumn day in Chicago, my husband and I visited the Stephen Diater Gallery where 87 black and white prints by Wayne F. Miller were being shown. The Chicago Tribune called the Miller show a “happy rediscovery” of a lensman who documented some of the most heightened times of the 20th Century as well as the intimate daily life of an American family— his own.1 I was drawn to the empathy and affection shown in Miller’s photographs —the best of human qualities.
Paul Berlanga, Director of Stephen Daiter Gallery, cheerfully answered my questions about the artist, and described a series of photographs taken in 1950 at Enchanted Hills Camp For the Blind, located on Mt. Veeder Road in Napa. Paul also invited me to the book signing of Wayne Miller Photographs 1942-1958 on December 13 at the Orinda Bookstore, where I will be able to meet the artist, Wayne Miller (90 years) and his wife, Joan.
Early Years and WWII
Wayne F. Miller, a photojournalist, was born in Chicago in 1918 and grew up on the North Side in ethnically mixed neighborhoods. His first camera was given to him by his father as high school graduation gift. But it wasn’t until his sophomore year in college the that he took up photography ‘professionally’ as the photographer for the University of Illinois newspaper and yearbook using a classic 4 x 5 Speed Graphic news camera.
A Speed Graphic camera — the photographer is not Wayne F. Miller!
Following graduation and to the dismay of his parents, he abandoned a career in banking to study photography at the Art Center in Los Angeles. Miller was invited to leave the school, however, after he “impishly turned in a print from a train-station photo booth, and for a label pasted a bust ticket stub, a Chinese laundry ticket, and a beer label on the back of the mount.”2 Miller returned to the Midwest, married Joan Baker, and to avoid being a foot soldier, joined the Navy where through a lucky introduction became a member of Edward Steichen’s World War II U.S. Navy Combat Photo Unit. As Miller describes:
Our assignment was to photograph the navy at war. Steichen told us to focus on the enlisted man, as he would be the one that would win the war. We were allowed to photograph anything in the navy, as we saw fit. In fact, the only directions we received were to be sure when you come back you have some pictures that will please the navy brass. Other than that, we had no constraints. Our orders said, “Proceed where you deem necessary and upon completion, return.” These kinds of orders were unheard of. 3
Chicago’s South Side
After the war his focus shifted from the vast horizon of the Pacific to the home front. Miller received two concurrent Guggenheim fellowships to fund “The Way of Life of the Northern Negro”. Taken over a course of three years beginning in 1946, his photographs span “garbaged alleys and wintry streets where snowflakes fell like tears, those numberless wooden fire traps called home, the homeless gathered around flaming trash cans to escape the hawk of winter, those crudely worded signs . . . those old men reclining in forgotten chairs left at curbside for moving vans that never showed up”. 4
In addition to providing a glimpse into the hardships shared by a community of migrants who had just made the long journey from the rural South to the urban North, the images collected in Chicago’s South Side 1946-1948, reflect the enormous variety of human experiences and emotions that occurred at a unique time and place in the American landscape. Miller reflects:
Rapport is an interesting thing. Sometimes it takes a long time to do it, or it seems to take a long time. Other times it’s immediate when the subject feels comfortable with you, and feels that you’re not trying to exploit them or criticize them, or to hurt them in any way. Everybody wants to tell their story, their own story. In effect, they almost welcome you into it.
But these people, they liked it. I think I may have mentioned another reason they liked it. One said, “We don’t have scrap-books and this gives us a chance to understand what our parents’ life was like.” Also the older people would say, “Now I can show the grandchildren what it was like.” It had a nice feeling there.
I was able to move within this black society on the south side of Chicago. I was the only white face around for blocks, outside of delivery people or the boss of a store someplace. I could walk down the streets alone any time of the day or night. I walked down the alleyways, I walked into tenement houses, walked down hallways. If I saw an open door, or hear some voices, I would smile and ask, “Do you mind if I make some photographs.” Invariably I would be invited in. “Sure, go ahead.”
For example, the pictures I did in Chicago’s South Side with blacks, none of them seem to be conscious of what I’m doing. It has been suggested that maybe because I was using this Rolleiflex, which is a reflex camera that I had hung around my neck and that had a waist-level viewpoint, that I was looking down into it rather than looking at them, it’s been suggested that this might be a reason for that. 3
But city life coupled with the gray and overcast wintertime of Chicago became strangely depressing and monotonous. And so in 1949 the Miller family of six moved to Orinda California where during the next four years, Miller produced hundreds for photo essays primarily for Life, but also Colliers, Ebony, Ladies Home Journal and Fortune magazines.
The Family of Man
The peacetime search for universal truths led Miller and his generation to dwell on the family. He set out with his camera to document “the things that make this human race of ours a family…look at what we all have in common—dreams, laughter tears. Pride, the comfort of home, the hunger for love.”5 He brought to the public the vision of his wife’s labor in bearing their second child, and it was images of his four growing children that graced the pages not simply of his own book, The World is Young, but also Steichen’s The Family of Man and Dr. Benjamin Spock’s A Baby’s First Year.
“The universe resounds with the joyful cry I am.” These words by the Russian poet, composer and pianist Scriabin, appears above this image in The Family of Man, where Dr. Howard Wayne Miller is delivering Wayne and Joan’s second child and his own grandson. In describing execution details, Miller says:
I thought that this would be a way of touching, and getting at the essence of life, to be able to photograph this sort of a happening. The lighting is all flash. This is a technical aspect that I had learned, that the bare flash bulb was better light than one with reflectors, so these pictures have that luminous quality. Also, it was in a light-colored, small room that reflected the light nicely.3
This photograph also became one of the signature images in The Family of Man exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955 in which Miller played a key role as Steichen’s assistant. Miller goes on to describe the exhibition:
It’s also worth noting that up until this point in time both the advertising world and museums had ignored documentary photography. Almost overnight this informal kind of photography—these snapshots— was endowed as a legitimate artistic form that continues through today.” The Family of Man exhibit was the first “super show”, a body of imagery greater than the sum of its parts and designed to travel the world. A display of ‘how photography as an art form could express qualities of mankind’.
So the pictures we used were not necessarily the finest photographs. The aesthetics took care of themselves. I remember a statement Steichen made at one time. He said, “There’s not much you can do to hurt a good picture. There’s not much you can do to help a bad one.”2
Mr. Steichen describes Miller’s birth image as having “the stature of an epic poem…one of the most stirring works ever to appear in a photographic exhibition.”5
The World is Young
In 1955 Miller proposed an idea and received a $10,000 advance for an assignment that remains his personal favorite—his own family. Published three years later The World is Young quickly became a classic, depicting the daily life of an American family’s children—the first comprehensive document of its type.
“She is a tree of life to them”…Proverbs 3:18
The subject matter was kind of a unique slice of time about a culture that no longer exists. This was the happy suburban life. It was an age of innocence. It would be hard to redo some of this. It would be hard to do today. Much like the blacks in Chicago. That is a moment of time that has come and gone.3
I did a story on Rose Resnick. Rose is a blind teacher here in San Francisco and she’s been blind since she was two. I did what I felt was a pretty sensitive story on Rose and the summer camp that she was directing. (A little side story here, we were sitting on a log there just talking between ourselves. She interrupted me and she said, “Wayne, tell me, what’s a photograph?” And I just started to explain to her what it was, and all of the sudden, I had to stop. I didn’t know, I couldn’t describe it.) 3
By the 1970s Miller had fallen out of love with photojournalism and he decided ‘to pack it in’. Gone were the days of an editor giving a green light to a concept proposed by a photographer or writer—especially an idea with an indeterminate conclusion. Instead, Miller’s focus evolved naturally from his interests in people to that of the land. He and his wife purchased a redwood forest near Fort Bragg and began a second career in non-industrial timber management. They continue to live near their children in the redwood house they designed in 1950.
While his career as a photographer spanned only a relatively small part of his life, Wayne F. Miller created “a strong and indelible body of work” as one of America’s finest social documentary photographer’s of the 20th century.
On Saturday, December 13 the Orinda Bookstore held a book signing of Wayne Miller Photographs 1942-1958. A small gathering of Mr. Miller’s family and friends sat in a cozy corner of the bookstore to hear more anecdotes about WWII, South Chicago, and the making of The Family of Man exhibition in NY. Mr. Miller is a gifted storyteller with his camera and as a speaker.
I enjoyed this assignment. The hours of research into Mr. Miller’s life and work were well spent because of the respect and admiration I developed for him as a person, artist, and contributor to American photographic art.
1. Artner, Alan G. “Miller’s photographs show his warmth of approach”, Chicago Tribune, November 28, 2008
2. Tremain, Kerry, Editor, California Magazine from an essay written for Wayne F. Miller, Photographs 1942-1958 (Brooklyn, Powerhouse Books 2008)
3. Miller, Wayne F. “An Eye on the World: Reviewing a Lifetime in Photography” (Interview by Suzanne B. Riess, Regional Oral History Office, University of California, The Bancroft Library Berkeley 2001). 186 Pages.
4. Parks, Gordon “The Way of Life of the Northern Negro,” an essay written for Wayne F. Miller, Photographs 1942-1958 (Brooklyn, Powerhouse Books 2008)
5. Stanley, Amy Dru “When we were Young,” an essay written for Wayne F. Miller, Photographs 1942-1958 (Brooklyn, Powerhouse Books 2008)