Issue #197  6/5/2013
Noted Photographer and Curator Wayne Miller Passes Away in California

By Paul Berlanga
Director, Paul Berlanga Photography and the Stephen Daiter Gallery

Wayne Forest Miller was born in Chicago in 1918, the son of a socially committed doctor. After graduating from the University of Illinois, where he dabbled in school-related photographic assignments, Miller attended the Art Center in Los Angeles, where an independent streak and wry sense of humor sometimes put him at odds with the administration.

His studies were interrupted in 1942 with the Second World War. Miller was assigned to a unique, elite combat photography unit, under the command of Captain Edward Steichen, and the two men formed a bond that lasted a lifetime. (In 1973, Wayne closed Steichen's eyelids as he passed away, at the age of 94.)

Wayne Miller took some of the finest photographs of the war in the Pacific Theatre, (a couple of his prints were featured in the recent WAR / Photography exhibition at the Houston Museum of Fine Art's monumental exhibition). His work dwelled on the humanity of his subjects, whether American or foreign. "I don’t see these people that I photograph as being any different than I am," he said, referring to the Japanese. "Basically in my work I tried to photograph how I felt the subjects in front of my lens were feeling about their circumstances at the time."

After the war, Miller returned home to a flurry of activity. He had married Joan Baker on leave in 1942, and they had four children by 1951. Miller began taking on freelance magazine assignments during what would prove to be the golden age of photojournalism.

The busy young father also wanted to carry forward an idea he had been discussing with his shipmates on the way home after the War. Wayne was overwhelmed with what an effective job photography did of recording man’s inhumanity to man, (Wayne himself documented the aftermath of dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima). He ever after concentrated on using the medium to express and underscore the possibilities in positive human connection. With his wife Joan's advice and support, Wayne conceptualized the project that would be titled, "The Way of Life of the Northern Negro"(1946-48). It was a groundbreaking visual study that created what remains to this day the most comprehensive and intimate exploration of the daily lives of the African-Americans who lived in an area of Chicago called Bronzeville.

Wayne was awarded two Guggenheim grants to facilitate the work. In 2000, The University of California published the work as "Chicago's South Side, 1946-1948", with a foreword by Wayne's friend, Gordon Parks.

Wayne also taught briefly (1947-48) at the Institute of Design at the suggestion of his friend Harry Callahan. Wayne Miller’s next major undertaking (1953-55) would be to co-curate (with additional valuable input from Joan) the pioneering and record-breaking exhibition, "The Family of Man", returning to work with his mentor, Edward Steichen. The show, which also featured Miller's photography, reflected well the two men's shared vision of what the photograph could do to promote a sense of human unity.

Few people know that Wayne Miller was offered the curatorship of photography at MoMA, when Steichen retired--a post Wayne considered and turned down.

Over the next few years, Wayne would go on to publish two of the best-selling photography books in American history: "Baby's First Year" ( 1955 ), and "The World is Young" ( 1958 ). Both volumes were documentaries, with Wayne's family as the focus, their lives rendered in the most intimate detail. Wayne considered "The World is Young", to be his favorite achievement.

Miller's highly successful freelance career included hundreds of magazine assignments for Life, Colliers, The Ladies' Home Journal, and others. He was president of the Magnum Photo cooperative from 1962 to 1964. His prints have been widely acquired by museums, institutions and private collectors.

During the decade of the 1970s photography and its challenges began to run their course for Miller, and he involved himself more deeply in his passions for the land and the environment and education related to it. He also helped to draft legislation that aided the survivability of forested properties.

Art-related awards, accolades and publications continued in the wake of Wayne's "retirement".

Ever a modest man, when asked about his art, he would reply: "What the hell is fine art? I think fine art is a day you've done very well!"

Wayne Miller passed away on the morning of May 22nd in his California home of over 60 years. He was surrounded by family including his wife Joan, as well as all four children, Jeanette, David, Dana and Peter.

He will be sorely missed.