Wayne Miller obituary
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Magnum photographer celebrated for his images of the second world war and Chicago’s South Side
The American photographer Wayne Miller, who has died aged 94, once said his mission was “to photograph mankind and explain man to man”. To this end, he created memorable images of American soldiers in combat during the second world war, the devastation of Hiroshima just after the detonation of the atom bomb, and the black community in the south side of Chicago in the 1940s.
Miller was also a key figure in establishing photojournalism as an important medium, co-curating the monumental Family of Man exhibition with the photographer Edward Steichen in 1955. With subjects grouped thematically under headings such as love, death and children, the show included 503 images taken by 273 photographers across the world. After opening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it toured for eight years, drawing huge crowds. Meanwhile, Miller served as president of both the American Society of Magazine Photographers and of Magnum Photos, from 1962 until 1968.
He was born in Chicago. His father was a doctor and his mother was a nurse. It was his parents who gave him a camera as a graduation present and his photographs were published for the first time in the yearbook of the University of Illinois, where he studied banking. He attended the Art Center School of Los Angeles for two years, before enlisting in the navy, where he was assigned to the combat photo unit led by Steichen. Its aim was to record the everyday life of the serving soldier and the often fierce battles being played out in the South Pacific. One of Miller’s iconic images shows a wounded airman being pulled out of his fighter plane. Miller had been scheduled to fly on that plane, and the photographer who went in his place was killed.
More visceral still were Miller’s images from Hiroshima, where he was among the first photographers to be given access to the devastated city just after Japan surrendered in September 1945. He photographed the ghostly ruins and the often scarred faces of traumatised survivors. Through his first-hand experience of the horrors of war, Miller came to see photography as a medium that could effect social and political change. “We didn’t know the people we were fighting. They didn’t know us,” he said later. “Maybe if we knew each other better, the war would be a different kind of a war … there would be less carnage. I thought that after the war, if I could get involved in some kind of a project that was related to that thinking, it would be my way as a photographer of participating in maybe slowing down the next war.”
He immediately found a challenging peacetime project in his hometown, where, funded by two consecutive Guggenheim grants, he spent three years photographing African-American life on Chicago’s South Side. He captured working-class construction workers and the black urban poor, as well as the city’s burgeoning black middle class, whose well-off but self-contained lives came as a surprise to many white Americans who saw the pictures. Among his subjects, too, were celebrities such as Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. The project was initially called The Way of Life of the Northern Negro, and a selection of the photographs was finally published in 2000 as a book entitled Chicago’s South Side 1946-1948.
Miller taught at the Institute of Design in Chicago before moving in 1953 to California, where he began working for Life magazine. The promise of childhood would become a recurring theme in his work. The Family of Man exhibition included a series of photographs taken by Miller of his wife, Joan, in labour, then giving birth to his son David and he provided photographs for the bestselling book A Baby’s First Year (1956) by Dr Benjamin Spock and John B Reinhart. In 1958, Miller published The World Is Young, which portrayed the lives of his four children growing up in Orinda, California.
Throughout his working life, Miller’s photographs were printed regularly in Life and National Geographic. He stopped working as a photographer in the 70s, devoting his energies instead to the protection of northern California’s giant redwood trees. He helped form the lobby group The Forest Landowners of California, which has successfully campaigned for the conservation of forestland in the US.
Alex Majoli, president of Magnum Photos, described Miller as a photographer “who paved the ground for the rest of us, who tried to depict the streets, the real life”.
Miller is survived by Joan, four children and nine grandchildren.
• Wayne Miller, photographer, born 19 September 1918; died 22 May 2013
via Art and design: Photography | guardian.co.uk http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/2013/may/31/wayne-miller Sean O’Hagan Thanks for reading Jay
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