Remembering Wayne F. Miller

May 23, 2013

I met Wayne F. Miller for the first and only time in 2008. He was a soft-spoken man who, with his camera, had documented many of the 20th century’s events that I’ve always been interested in: The Pacific Theater during World War II, Chicago’s African American communities during the Great Migration, itinerant farm workers.

Technically, Miller was a master. He understood light. His blacks were rich and his whites were crisp. He understood composition. His placement of lines and shapes and shadows and forms draw your eye from one part of the frame to another in the order and direction he wanted your eyes to go. 

But Wayne Miller wasn’t interested in the technical aspects of photography. For me, what set him apart and made him special was the humanity he brought to his work and the dignity he gave to his subjects. Miller found and captured the moments that make us human.  He loved creating and presenting photographs that showed what human beings have in common. As he says in the forward to his book"Chicago’s South Side 1946-1948": 

"We may differ in race, color, language, wealth and politics. But look at what we all have in common-dreams, laughter, tears, pride, the comfort of home, the hunger for love.  If I could photograph these universal truths, I thought that might help us better understand the strangers on the other side of the world-and on the other side of town."

Of all his many accomplishments, and all the monumental events Miller captured over his career, his favorite photos were the ones he took of his kids, and of children in general.  After I met Wayne, I was given a copy of his 1958 book "The World Is Young". It features pictures of kids just being kids. At the time, I didn’t have a family. And the truth is, I was never interested in children or comfortable around them. So I really didn’t crack the book. It was much more interesting to look at the dramatic photos Miller took of the Navy men on the aircraft carriers during the war. But right after my son was born in 2011, I opened that book again with new eyes. It clicked (so to speak). And from that moment to this, it has provided countless hours of inspiration as I document my own boy’s life. For the person and the photographer, it’s a master lesson that some of the greatest moments on film don’t show war or poverty or sadness.

Although Miller’s photographs fill books and gallery walls, he told me that he never considered himself an artist, and"“certainly didn’t set out to create art". He said "What the hell is fine art? Fine art is a day that you’ve done well."

If that’s the case, Wayne Miller—husband, father, environmentalist, patriot, photographer—didn’t make fine art. He lived it.

Special thanks to Paul Berlanga of the Stephen Daiter Gallery for introducing me to Mr. Miller. Here’s a conversation I produced with Wayne and WBEZ’s Richard Steele in late 2008.

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