Wayne Miller passed away, yesterday, and with him went one of our last links to the that great company of mid-twentieth-century great American social documentary photographers. He was less well known (and a generation or two younger) than the likes of Dorothea Lange, W. Eugene Smith, and Gordon Parks, but he shared their passion for photography and commitment to social justice. (You can read a brief obituary in the Washington Post, here.)
Miller came of age as a photographer during World War II. He photographed naval warfare in the Pacific and made some of the first photos of Hiroshima after it had been devastated by the atomic bomb. In the late '40s, he produced a magnificent extended photo-essay on the black community in Chicago. His depiction of the community was complex, nuanced, and profoundly human. It stood in stark contrast to prevailing images of African Americans, which often reinforced stereotypes of a degraded or comical people. You can see a slideshow of these photos, here, on Magnum's website. The wonderful video below will give you a feel for Miller the man.
Miller was lucky enough to have been working at a time when social documentary photography had a central place within American popular culture. From the 1930 until the early 1970s, Americans by and large accepted the idea that problems of poverty and inequality should be addressed and that individual lives and society as a whole could be bettered. This belief wasn't universal, of course, and some people resisted change. But many did not. Change did come, thanks to the efforts of millions who helped in large ways and small.
You could say that social documentary photography went along for the ride, but that would suggest that the photographers were mere passengers. In fact, the photos that social documentary photographers produced helped to change the way that Americans thought about and responded to issues such as racism and segregation, war, the environment, and women's rights.
The consensus that made progressive change possible and that supported social documentary photography had fallen apart by the early 1970s, by which time (coincidentally or not) Miller had stopped working as a professional photographer. He turned his attention to environmental issues.
The widespread longing for a better world and the sense that it could be achieved (something that was by no means just an American phenomenon) helps to explain the success of The Family of Man, both the exhibition and the book. To this day, this mid-'50s celebration of the essential unity of humankind remains the most widely seen photo exhibition ever produced and best selling photo book ever published. Virtually every image in the show and the book was an example of social documentary photography.
Miller was an important part of making Family of Man happen, and that's what connects me -- very indirectly -- to him.
Throughout the planning and production of Family of Man, Miller was the most important assistant to Edward Steichen, its guiding light and motive force. The exhibition was tremendously popular, traveling from New York's Museum of Modern Art to 37 countries on six continents, where it was seen by nine million people. It's also come in for its share of criticism -- that its notion of a "family of man" was romantic nonsense, that it avoided difficult issues that divided humanity, that it was propaganda for the American way of life, that it showed Africans only as primitives... There's some truth to all of those critiques.
But critics lose sight of why the exhibition struck such a responsive chord around the world, often with people who had no particular affection for the United States (and some of whom were themselves African). Memories of the destruction and death of World War II and the horror of the Holocaust were still fresh. The Cold War, with its threat of nuclear doom, was a new terror. In circumstances like these, it's hard to fault people for wanting to believe that our similarities are more important than our differences and, if we recognize that fundamental truth, we'll make the world a better place.
When I first encountered Family of Man, however, I was too young for any of these weighty thoughts. I simply fell in love with its photography -- and by extension with photography itself.
As in so many middle class American homes during the '50s and '60s, the book version of Family of Man had an honored place on the coffee table in the Mason family living room. I can't remember when I first started thumbing through it. It must have been when I was 11 or 12, but the photos became so much as part of me that it feels like they've always been with me. I loved them for themselves -- photography as photography -- and as windows to distant worlds. They shaped my ideas about what photos ought to look like and what they ought to say. And they shaped my sense of the photos that I wanted to learn how to make.
I was lucky that Family of Man was my introduction to photography. For all the criticism that has been heaped upon the project, no one has ever said that Steichen and Miller had bad taste in photography. The photos are magnificent. And why not? They were produced by the some of the greatest photographers of the era -- Ansel Adams, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Margaret Bourke-White, Brassai, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Roy DeCarava, yes, Dorothea Lange and W. Eugene Smith. I could run through the alphabet, but you get the point. These guys and gals were good. (It's worth noting that Asian, African, African-American, and Latin American photographers were poorly represented.)
When I was a little older, I saw something else in Family of Man. I saw people like me -- African-Americans, or Negroes, as we were then -- represented respectfully. We were depicted as equal members of a common American society, not simply as members of a family of man.
This mattered to me and, I'm sure, to my parents. It was the high tide of the civil rights movement, a time when racial integration was more than a promise. It seemed real, and it seemed to herald the end of racial distinctions in American society.
You could point to my family as an example of the possibilities of integration, even as I sensed its limits. My father, having enlisted in a segregated U.S. Army, rose through the officers' ranks in an integrated one. Later, after three years in an Episcopal seminary, he served as a beloved priest to two largely white congregations. I spent my childhood living in mostly white neighborhoods, attending mostly white schools, and playing mostly with white kids.
I don't know how my father made of all of this, but I learned, especially in my teenage years, that integration had its limits. It was a hard lesson, and I resented it. I drifted away from Family of Man and found other kinds of images to inspire me -- Malcolm, Coltrane, Angela -- often produced, ironically enough, by white photographers.
Family of Man remains a part of me, however, and so does promise that it embodies. I want to thank Wayne Miller for that gift.