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These articles by Nicole Plett were prepared for the January 7, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
In Hopewell: `Faces of Russia’
As a photographer, David H. Miller strives to capture "life as it is." The retired banker and lifelong amateur photographer has spent his career living and working in far-flung communities in Afghanistan, Africa, Europe, and the Soviet Union. And the result is a chronicle of "life as it is" that spans some 35 years. Today the 61-year-old is still traveling the globe, often planning his trips to take advantage of new opportunities to photograph "life as it is."
In May this year, Miller made a return trip to Moscow, a city where he had been a student in the early 1970s and a banker in the 1990s. Knowing that the Russian commemoration of the Allied victory of May 9, 1945, would bring tens of thousands of veterans and visitors into Moscow, he timed his trip the World War II Victory in Europe, or V.E. Day. Miller’s recent photographs, as well as a few from his earlier experiences in that country, constitute his new show, "The Faces of Russia."
The opening reception for Miller’s "Faces of Russia," and its companion show "Double Exposed" by Rhoda Kassof-Isaac, takes place at Gallery 14 in Hopewell, on Friday, January 9, from 6 to 9 p.m. Both artists will be back at Gallery 14 for a "Meet the Photographers" gallery talk on Sunday, January 11, at 1 p.m. In a recent interview, Miller explains that his theme as a photographer is people and faces. His goal is the environmental portrait – images of people in their natural setting going about their daily activities.
"I went to Moscow in May for 10 days specifically for the holiday," says Miller, adding cheerfully that he also happened to catch some of the best weather of the year. "May ninth is still a very big celebration in Moscow with a parade of veterans through Red Square. It’s a reunion of comrades. Veterans dress in their old uniforms, they may even have new ones cut. People from all over come into the city to celebrate. There must have been 100,000 people walking down Tverskaya, the city’s main street."
"I went to look up old friends and with introductions to new friends," he continues. "I particularly love the open-air markets. I spent the mornings photographing and talking to people. I’ll be showing pictures of women selling cheeses, spices, and honey." Miller says he almost always bought from the vendors whom he photographed, but often they insisted on giving him free samples of their products. On his return home, he is in the habit of mailing back photographs to the subjects he has bonded with.
‘Quite honestly, it’s not just about grabbing the photograph, I have such a good time talking to people, relating them," says the gregarious Miller, who is not only fluent in Russian, but can be talkative in several other languages. He says his success in getting his photograph is sometimes secondary to getting to know his subjects.
"I don’t feel predatory, I’m not stealing their photograph. I’m not afraid to stand there and talk to them – provided I can speak their language," he says. "Sometimes I get a photograph before I set up a relationship, sometimes after."
Despite the colorful pageantry of Miller’s international destinations, including Moscow’s V.E. Day parade, Miller photographs almost exclusively in black and white. "I still develop and print all my own stuff," he explains. His exhibition prints are almost all hand-made silver gelatin prints.
"I do a little color, but there’s something more classic, more timeless to me about black and white," he says. "I photograph light – in black and white I can see strong lines and strong forms."
Miller, who is mostly self taught in his art, has been a practicing photographer since his childhood. He grew up in Indiana where his father was a school principal and his mother was a homemaker, and set up his first darkroom when he was in sixth grade. A vocal soloist in grade school and in high school, considered a career in opera. He attended DePauw University, a liberal arts college, where he earned his B.A. There, "on a whim," he signed up to fulfill the language requirement by studying Russian for two years – "that lasted 20 years."
After working with his wife, Kathie Miller, in the Peace Corp in Afghanistan in 1967 and ’68, Miller was slated to go into the Foreign Service but ended up in graduate school at Princeton University where he earned his PhD in medieval Russian history. In 1970 he won a Fulbright fellowship to research his dissertation in Moscow. Eventually, in the interest of providing stability for their two children, he and his wife decided against the Foreign Service.
During the 1970s, Miller taught Russian history Rutgers University, then switched to banking and joined Chase Manhattan Bank’s Africa division in 1980, a company he worked for in Africa and the U.S. until 1996. In the late ’90s he joined a small Russian bank as their credit officer and lived in Moscow again for two years.
Miller’s grade school years coincided with the heyday of Life Magazine as a showcase for black and white photography. "Photographers such as Eugene Smith and Henri Cartier-Bresson, some of the great photo essayists were publishing at the time," he recalls. The photo essay, which has largely fallen out of favor with the advent of the television documentary, was a widely popular enterprise for photographers and one that Miller still leans towards. "I also admire great landscape photographers because I’ve never been able to do that," he says.
His early enthusiasm for photography was followed by a long hiatus when college and graduate school kept him too busy to continue. Then, as a Peace Corp worker in Afghanistan in 1967 and ’68, he returned to the pursuit of photo portraits.
Many of the photographs he made in 1967 and ’68 in Afghanistan, when he and his wife were working as Peace Corps volunteers at Kabul University, were filed away for 30 years before Miller, provoked by the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan of 2001, brought his negatives out of storage and printed them. He exhibited these works in the show, "Afghanistan, Before," at Gallery 14 in early 2002.
In 1968 the Millers moved to Princeton where David began work on his doctorate in Russian. When they bought their first house near the high school in 1975, Miller set up his Princeton darkroom. Their children, now in their 20s, both graduated from Princeton High. Their son Ashley is finishing law school at NYU, and their daughter Rebecca is working on her dissertation clinical psychology at Long Island University. Both younger Millers live in Brooklyn (which Miller describes as "a fabulous place"), but the Princeton home has remained the parents’ base.
That base now includes membership in Gallery 14, the Hopewell showcase for art photography founded by Miller and nine other artist-photographers in 2001. It’s one of the few galleries in the state concentrating in photography.
Miller says his photography equipment has changed a little over the years, but his approach has not. "In Afghanistan I used a Pentax with a 35 mm lens that kept me pretty `up-close and personal.’ Now I use a Leica with a 25 mm lens, so I’m even closer." The new Leicas, he says, have the quietest shutters ever which make the camera even less intrusive for his subjects.
The new Leica, he says, is the quietest ever. "It’s so important when photographing people. One of the things about the photographers I admire, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, was that in effect he wasn’t there. He basically operated without disturbing the context he was in. I don’t mind entering the context, but I don’t want to affect it. I want to capture `life as it is.’" This concept, he notes, is the very antithesis of the art of Soviet Socialist Realism, where the artist was to describe, not life as it is, but life as it should be. "I like to capture what’s going on, how people are living," he says.
Still wedded to silver gelatin technology, he uses Ilford HP5 plus film and papers and old-fashioned developers. Yet he has brought some digital technology to bear on his work. His teacher at a course at the International Center for Photography (ICP) in New York advised against scanning black and white negatives into digital files. "He suggested that we make a good print and then scan it. After it has been scanned it can be tweaked in Photoshop. I’m finding Photoshop more useful."
Such digital "tweaking" came in handy when he decided that an intrusive power line was hurting his photograph of "Four Lenins." Turning to a bit of social realism of his own, he took the power lines out, creating a view of "the way it should have been."
How does a world citizen respond to the troubles of the past decade, the ever-increasing terrorist kidnapings and bombings?
"They’ve only increased my wanderlust! Well, they may be crimping my style a little bit," admits Miller who had a trip planned to Afghanistan this past spring. His goal was to put together a show of images of "Afghanistan Today" to complement the portfolio of photographs he made there in the 1960s. "I should have gone back, but the family rebelled. They were concerned for my safety. There are certain moments when the time is right and the time was right. It’s much more dangerous there now." The May trip to Moscow was, to use his own expression, something of a "consolation prize."
"Of course you know which hotel I stayed in in Moscow in May – the National Hotel – the site of a major bombing in December. The hotel wasn’t the target; the target, I think, was parliament. But the bombers stopped to ask directions," says Miller. The Moscow suicide bombings were carried out by two widows of Chechen fighters who have become known in Russia as "the Black Widows."
Soon a Russian friend was inviting Miller to come and visit him in the Caucasus, the mountains in southwest Russia near the border with the republic of Chechnya, where Miller would love to photograph. The route was also the site of a huge railroad bombing in December. With gusto, Miller tells the story of how his friend pretended to allay Kathie Miller’s fears.
"My friend told my wife and I, `Don’t worry. When we meet you at the airport, we’ll throw a black sack over your head and they’ll think you’re already kidnapped! You’ll be fine.’" The black humor evokes a hearty laugh from Miller. Sometimes, he says, he feels most at home abroad, experiencing and photographing "life as it is."
– Nicole Plett
Gallery 14 is open Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., and by appointment.
Also "The Italian Renaissance City: Selections from Princeton University Collections," with rare books and maps that highlight aspects of the city that fascinated Renaissance artists and architects. A symposium is planned in conjunction with the show; to January 11.
Also "The Book of Kings: Art, War, and the Morgan Library’s Medieval Picture Bible," exhibiting the greatest illuminated French manuscript of the 13th century, to June 6.
New hours for 2004: Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., November to March; open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., April to October. Sunday is Members Day (non-members pay $12 per person). Closed Mondays except Labor Day and Memorial Day. Closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
Adult admission is $5 Tuesday to Thursday; $8 Friday and Saturday; with discounts for students, seniors, and children. Admission $12 per person on Sundays. Individual memberships start at $70.
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