By Kerry Tremain
From under the fighter plane, the camera catches the whir of the propeller, two lines of taut cable, and a man with his arm thrust upward toward the sun. Alert, on the other side of the aircraft carrier, a crowd of crewmen watches for the signal. In an instant the arm will drop, and the cable will catapult pilot and plane into the ocean sky.
The unseen man holding the camera is a young World War II Naval officer, Wayne Miller, whose entry into photography was likewise swift and eventful. A few short years after his father gave him a camera as a high school graduation gift, he was aboard the USS Saratoga in the Pacific, cataloging and sharing the battle anxieties and camaraderie of fellow crewmembers. Edward Steichen, the 20th century photographic eminence, and a father figure and mentor to the younger man, commanded his combat photo unit from Washington D.C. Over the next three years of war, Miller witnessed the invasion of the Philippines, rendezvoused with troops preparing to land in southern France, flew home to record America’s grief for its fallen president, and finally photographed the devastation of Hiroshima by the atomic bomb.
In 1946, the native Chicagoan returned to create a singular, emotionally rich document of postwar Southside Chicago, a place that would alter national narratives about race and civil rights, and spawn an African-American creative renaissance, including a uniquely urban reinvention of the Blues. In 1952, Steichen, then director of photography for the Museum of Modern Art, called him to New York, where Miller and his wife Joan helped create The Family of Man, the most widely viewed global photography exhibition and book in history. The Family of Man forcefully expressed the same plea for universal brotherhood and peace that had inspired the United Nations, a plea born of the war’s horrors and for Miller personally in a never-forgotten pledge among his Navy buddies to create something good from what they had learned in hell.
For over two decades following the war, Miller was among the enviable cadre of photographers on regular assignment for Life during the golden era of picture magazines. A mark of his success was that he earned his living far from the publishing capitals of London, Paris, or New York, in the hilly San Francisco Bay Area suburb of Orinda, where he and Joan and their children settled in 1949. In years after his move west, Miller would complete at least 150 assignments for Life.
Like his contemporary and friend Eugene Smith, Miller’s photographs are muscular in design and tone. Although his prints are now exhibited in museums and sold in galleries, he never conceived of himself as an artist, but simply as a photojournalist. The forthright descriptiveness of the title suited him, for if his pursuits were characteristically driven by emotional intuition, there was also a stubborn practicality bred in this son of a former Illinois farm boy. Photojournalism assignments were paid work with topical subjects.
Still, “photojournalist” fits Miller uneasily. His interest was always emotion, not events. “The personal involvement with the making of a photograph is all important to me—to feel at one with that moment regardless of whether it be excitement, love, fear, or repugnancy,” he says. He photographed his wife in labor and his kid’s classmates facing off at recess with the same empathic deliberateness that he had earlier photographed a boy delivering blocks of ice to a Southside tenement.
Children appear throughout Miller’s work. In less capable hands, children make poor subjects; their projection of Rousseau-style natural innocence produces a too potent elixir. Indeed, one senses that the editors chose the cover for The World Is Young, Miller’s 1958 book on childhood—an image of his son with a butterfly on his sleeve—for its twin symbols of innocent purity. But Miller’s many photos of children, in the streets of Naples and Chicago, in Oakland’s juvenile detention center, resist simple sentimentality. There is the Italian boy peeing on a shell-pocked wall, a smoke in his mouth. Or the young Chicago boy with a look of seriousness beyond his years holding a sign: “Negro vets dared to vote. They were lynched.” On closer inspection, even his son, with the concentration and stealth of a cat, is looking to snare the butterfly.
Miller sought out varieties of emotional experience in search of visual language for a shared humanity—an ideal since diminished by more ironic and difference-sensitive sensibilities, but one held tightly by those who witnessed firsthand the slaughter and mass criminality of the mid-twentieth century. Still, Miller shied away from overt political statements. From the beginning, he was driven to use his camera to get closer to life, to penetrate its reality from the inside out.
On his dining room table, next to the wall of sliding glass doors that he designed so his children would have easy access to the outdoors, Miller places a large photograph showing the American invasion fleet in the Linguyan Gulf, Phillipine Islands. Puffs of black smoke are scattered across the sky. He wants to talk about the War.
His olive shirt and pants heighten the impression of an officer at ease. Miller is almost 90 years old, with a bypass operation and a stroke already behind him. He is a tall man whose silver white hair still rolls in generous waves across his large head. His persona remains amiable and intelligent. He lifts the edge of the print with thick fingers.
The Japanese, he explains, attacked at dusk when their fighter planes were hard to see against the fading sun and ocean clouds. The ships shot into the air—the puffs of smoke—in an attempt to hit the suicidal kamikaze pilots before they could dive into their targets. He once watched helplessly as a kamikaze headed for his own ship. “My bowels were loose,” Miller says. Nonetheless, he aimed his camera at the approaching Japanese pilot. Confused by the ship’s tall radar tower, the pilot overshot and crashed into the ocean. But four other ships in Miller’s convoy were struck and the men on them killed.
Miller also photographed crewmen easing a wounded gunner from the bullet-ridden plane in the manner of Jesus being lowered from the cross. Miller didn’t yet know that he himself had been saved from the dead. Hidden from view inside the plane lay the body of the air squadron photographer who had begged Miller to let him take his place on the fatal flight.
Unlike some of his shipmates, he found no solace for such experiences in religion. When British Admiral Louis Mountbatten, standing on the deck of the Saratoga asked God to protect the crew from enemy attack, he thought: That doesn’t make much sense. The Japanese are doing the same thing.
Hiroshima did not stand out, Miller insists, from the carnage he had seen elsewhere. Indeed, his photographs, some of the first after the bomb, can feel unsatisfying, unequal to writer John Hershey’s searing descriptions of extreme suffering, or to the moral significance of the new weapon. Yet in his images of his putative enemy, the defeated Japanese troops at the train station, you see the shape of the photographs to come. One soldier leans into another, sitting on his duffle on the platform, to light one cigarette with the other. It is an image of brotherhood, not only between the soldiers, but also with the viewer.
Wayne Miller was born in Chicago in 1918, near the end of the First World War. He grew up on the north side in ethnically mixed neighborhoods, including those he describes as “marginally black.” For money, Miller hawked newspapers near the Uptown Theater, which helped him blend into the neighborhood. “Because I was a kid, the prostitutes treated me well and gave me good tips,” he says.
Miller returned to his native city after the Second World War with a restorative project in mind. His ambition to “explain man to man” implied a prior misunderstanding, a division among us, and in the United States—in Chicago—the great division was between black and white. African Americans from the Mississippi Delta had poured into Chicago and other northern cities before, during, and after the war. In the North there were jobs, and a hope of escaping the Jim Crow discrimination of the South. This exodus constituted the largest internal migration in American history, and Southside Chicago was its epicenter. Miller won two Guggenheim Fellowships to complete his project, titled “The Way of Life of the Northern Negro.”
By the time he moved back to Chicago in 1946, he and Joan were married with two children, Jeanette and David. His parents still lived on the city’s north side. Miller always had a warm relationship with his father, who was an obstetrician and surgeon. But his harder-edged mother did not approve of Miller’s new project. At a family lunch with Joan’s parents, she dug in. “So, do you want Jeanette to marry a Negro?” she asked. Miller left in anger, but Joan’s father followed him and calmed him down. “She was lace-curtain Irish,” Miller says now, using a term for poor Irish immigrants with higher aspirations or, less charitably, an exaggerated concern for appearances.
He had trouble getting started on the project, spending weeks at home trying to decide how to gain entrée into a community he little knew. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that Miller would eventually meet Horace Cayton, who was director of an important Southside institution, Parkway Community House. The year before, Cayton and St. Clair Drake, both with the University of Chicago, had published Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, which is still considered one of the best books on African-American urban life. Cayton gave Miller valuable introductions, including one to the editor of Ebony, Ben Burns, whose assignments helped propel his work. With Cayton’s guidance and his own doggedness, Miller captured much of the neighborhood’s postwar dynamism over the next two years.
The worth of what he accomplished in those two years, 1946-48, is still appreciating. Beginning with a new exhibition and book ten years ago, Chicago’s South Side, 1946-1948, the photographs took on a new life, especially in Chicago. In 2001, Northwestern history professor Alex Green spoke at the Woodson Library, where they were being exhibited. Calling Miller’s photographs “our best snapshot album of Black Chicago at this time,” he described their lasting value to the people of the Southside: “Wayne Miller was fortunate to come to Chicago’s Southside when he did—for at this time Black Chicago was a community animated by the dramatic expansion in numbers, the deepening of institutions, and a growing feeling of maturity and confidence, within individuals and also through the community as a whole. The power of these images, then, testifies to a community’s will and power to speak, as much as it does to Mr. Miller’s ability to listen and ultimately record. The photographs, seen by this light, become almost conversational…older viewers have come back to engage these photos once again, identifying friends, associates, and even in some cases themselves.”
Miller says he always felt welcomed in Bronzeville, as the Southside community was called. He in turn was sensitive to the ways a camera can intrude. Working at Provident Hospital Emergency Room, he wrote, “An ice pick sticking, a woman who had taken Lysol in an effort to kill herself, a kid who had fallen down and cracked his head…all came, passing over the dried trail of blood. How I can photograph this sort of thing, I just don’t know. In order to really see things, one has to be so sympathetic—and to photograph them, one must be so brutal…I felt I had no right to trespass on their thoughts.”
At the time, some magazine editors did use Miller’s work in an exploitative way, such as the sensationalized account of a “reefer party” that he photographed. But the recent reception among African Americans of Miller’s Southside pictures validates how successfully he executed his original intention, to reflect his subject’s point of view as best he could. This large white man could not realistically become a fly on the wall inside a black neighborhood. Instead, he brought out people’s expressions in the quiet manner of a good listener. He created what Green aptly calls a conversation with his subjects, one that continues a half a century later.
There is also historical value in the project’s breadth. Miller shot high society and low, a debutante ball at the Parkway Ballroom and late nights at a rough 45th Street bar, where he was once saved from a beating by the bouncers who knew him. He photographed industrial workers and fish peddlers, gospel preachers and drunks, Ella Fitzgerald and Maxwell Street bluesmen, drag queens and street toughs.
Miller went looking for a universal truth and encountered a unique historical moment. In a revealing interview a few years ago with Chicago-based cultural historian and radio personality Studs Terkel, Miller repeatedly described the moods and feelings evoked by certain images, while Terkel often remarked on people he recognized, or referred to definitive political struggles of the time. Miller wasn’t after local histories; he wanted to convey a people’s humanity. He shows us a woman giving the grinning man on the next bar stool a weary eye over her shoulder, the aspiration of a skinny kid in trunks pounding a punching bag, and the strong, broad back of a father sitting with his young son on the Lake Michigan shore.
Miller’s camera, which always seemed to find the children, ultimately found his own. The photojournalist’s itinerant lifestyle is a notorious wrecker of homes and marriages. But throughout Miller’s career, Joan provided stability and warmth, offered her critical eye, helped design the hillside home where they still live, mastered the multiple skills needed to manage the redwood forest they bought on California’s Mendocino coast, and minded the children. The couple forged a bond that survived the vagaries of Miller’s career, and his enduring affection for Joan is evident in his many photographs of her. In one shot early in her motherhood, she chats with a neighbor while leaning into a baby carriage, her body and skirt forming a curve as elegant and sensual as a caress. In The World Is Young, she invariably appears as the warm and wise mother—the play leader, the sympathetic tutor, the dispenser of justice, and the soothing healer of bruised knees and egos.
Miller met Joan Baker in 1939 in Urbana, Illinois, where she was a town girl and he was attending the university while working part-time as a photographer for local publications. In 1941, to the dismay of his parents, he walked away from the university and a future banking career to study photography at the Art Center in Los Angeles. (This adventure turned out poorly. Miller was attracted to the emotionally expressive possibilities of photography, but the school emphasized commercial art. Assigned to make a portrait, Miller turned in a print from a train-station photo booth, and for a label pasted a bus ticket stub, a Chinese laundry ticket, and a beer label on the back. He was asked to leave the school.)
When Miller returned to the Midwest the following year, he and Joan were married. To avoid being drafted as a foot soldier, he also joined the Navy, where he met Steichen. The young couple conceived their first child during one of his home visits as he crisscrossed the globe shooting for the Navy. By 1951, they were raising four children in Orinda—a suburb in the 1950s and 60s that, Miller sensed, occupied its own place in the postwar American story. California had once again, like the Gold Rush a century earlier, become the repository for the nation’s optimism, and nowhere more so than on its urban edges, where farmlands were yielding to new homes and new roads and the shiny new schools that, Miller says, residents were only too happy to tax themselves to build.
His inspiration for a new project, based in Orinda, came to him while working on The Family of Man exhibition. A photograph of his son David being pulled from Joan’s womb by Miller’s father became one of the exhibition’s signature images. (Later, Carl Sagan, with young David’s permission, put a copy aboard the spaceship Voyager I.) But while sorting through countless thousands of possible photographs for The Family of Man, Miller was struck by the dearth of childhood pictures, and conceived of a book that became The World Is Young. With an advance from a publisher, he set about photographing his children, which shared the practical advantage of allowing him to work at home. The book became his most popular work.
Miller organized the book logically, first covering the home life of each of his four children, and then following them and their classmates from first through seventh grade. Children, he soon discovered, pose their own challenges to a photographer trying not to influence or disturb the action. As he writes in the book: “At the start, I hung around the playground before and after school, at recess, at lunch. ‘Watcha doin’?’ I told them. ‘What kinda camera’s that?’ I told them. ‘Can I see it?’ I showed them. ‘What’s he doin’ He’s taking pictures. ‘Can I see the pictures?’ Not now. Maybe later.” A fifth grader unwittingly offered him a breakthrough when he walked among a group of kindergarteners. Miller realized that the older kid was a giant next to the younger children. “From then on, all pictures were taken from the subject’s eye level,” he wrote.
In 1958, the year The World Is Young was published, Miller joined the famed Magnum Photo Agency begun by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Around the same time, he and Joan bought their timberland on the coast. He continued to fulfill assignments for magazines, but by the early 1960s, he had become less enthusiastic about photography. By the mid-70s, he would abandon it professionally. The golden age of picture magazines was over, supplanted by television, and for Miller, the assignments had begun to feel routine. One day, lying in the mud of a kennel to shoot a feature for People on prize Shar-pei dogs, he realized his heart was no longer in it.
A camera can serve as a passport to other lives and cultures but it also paradoxically stands between the photographer and the world. “We’re not participating, we’re observing,” Miller says. “We’re trying to be inconspicuous; we’re trying to be ‘not there,’ but there. So it’s a pretty lonely life.” Once while photographing in a village in Mexico, he designed a simple bed and table that could be folded down on the dirt floor, or tucked away in a family’s tiny shack. Decades later at his dining table, he sketches the design with a pencil. “It was the only time I did anything practical to help,” he says. All his life, he used photography to get closer to other people’s experiences. But he yearned to be more of a participant in life, and Miller eventually put aside his camera and went home for good. Before he did, he created an invaluable, nuanced, and personal record of major World War II and postwar experiences.