Interview and transcript © 1994 by Kay Reese & Mimi Leipzig. ASMP staff edited the transcript for online presentation and added supplemental biographic information.
Wayne Miller was born in Chicago in 1918. He attended the University of Illinois, Urbana, from 1938 to 1940, where he was a photographer for the college yearbook. During the following two years, he studied photography at the Art Center School of Los Angeles. He then joined U.S. Navy and served in Edward Steichen’s Naval Aviation Unit from 1942 to 1946.
After the war, Miller went back to Chicago and worked as a freelance photographer. He was awarded two grants from the Guggenheim Foundation to photograph “The Way of Life of the Northern Negro,” which was later published as a book titled Chicago’s South Side, 1946-1948.
In 1953, he rejoined Steichen as associate curator for the famous The Family of Man exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art; the exhibition catalog subsequently was published as a book by the same name. A longtime member of ASMP, he was named its chairman in the summer of 1954.
He became a member of Magnum Photos in 1958, and served as its president from 1962 to 1966. Having been active in environmental causes since the 1960s, he then went to work with the National Park Service. In 1970, he joined the Corporation of Public Broadcasting as executive director of the Public Broadcasting Environmental Center. After that, in 1975, he retired from professional photography and devoted himself to protection of California forests.
Along the way, he coauthored A Baby’s First Year with Dr. Benjamin Spock, and authored his own book, The World is Young.
Wayne was interviewed in his Orinda, CA, home on September 20, 1994.
“That would be a politic way of handling it.”
ASMP: How did you come to be the chairman of ASMP?
Miller: There was a difference of opinion between Philippe Halsman and somebody else at the time. I can’t remember the specifics, but it got to the point that it was going to create a schism in the leadership of ASMP; Philippe, I believe, threatened to resign. It was a very loosely held group, and very emotional. These photographers, they were young and full of vim and vigor and wanted to assert themselves, and they had strong feelings. ASMP didn’t have the strength that we have now, and it could have exploded.
Looking through old copies of Infinity, I find that in March of ‘54 I was a trustee. And then I’m shown as chairman in the August/September Infinity. All I remember, really, is that there was a feeling that the doggone organization would fall apart and I was asked to be president.
ASMP: It was the time of the Code, I think.
Miller: The Code, and whether we were going to be a union or not be a union, and how tough we were going to be, and the positions and whatnot. There was a group who were saying, “Let’s be hard-nosed businessmen.” And the others were saying, “There’s more to photography than being businessmen, so let’s get back and think about the good aspects of photography.”
I was asked to be president, but I felt that it would not make good sense for me to replace Philippe, because that would leave Philippe unhappy and other people would feel they’d gotten a leg up or something. So I said, “No, I don’t want to be president. Let me be chairman,” so that Philippe could remain as president. So that’s how that came about.
ASMP: I remember meeting Bob Smallman and several hysterical people from Scope Associates who were attacking the office because we weren’t tough enough.
Miller: You were damned if you do and damned if you don’t, at that point in time. But that’s how I got to be chairman. I felt that would be a politic way of handling it.
ASMP: It was very tactful. Was there a vote, or did they just nominate you?
Miller: That, I don’t remember.
ASMP: This was about the time that Edward Steichen was working to put The Family of Man show together, so you were busy with him, weren’t you?
Miller: That’s correct. I started working with him in the summer of 1953, and the show opened in January 1955.
ASMP: When did you join Magnum?
Miller: That was in ‘57. After the Family of Man show, there were some things I wanted to do. I was asked to join Magnum — actually, back in the late ’40s, but I was a young, arrogant guy who wanted to do my own thing. I was working at the Guggenheim [fellowship] in the late ’40s and doing some other things, and then I got started with the Family of Man. So I didn’t join until ‘57.
“We had Navy orders that allowed us to go any place.”
ASMP: Were you already in the Navy when you worked for Steichen?
Miller: I was in the Navy. I got into the Navy in January of ‘42, and I was there when I learned that Steichen was coming in.
ASMP: Had you already been shooting? Were you a photographer?
Miller: No, I was in administration. But I happened to show my photographs to a woman, Joyce B. Hancock, who was there. She ended up as head of the Waves. And she showed them to a Captain Radford, who eventually became Chief of the Joint Chiefs.
Radford suggested I see Steichen. I met him in Tom Maloney’s office in New York, and he recommended I be transferred to his group.
ASMP: So you went all through the South Pacific with him?
Miller: He was only out a couple of times. We all traveled alone. It was [Victor] Jorgenson, [Barrett] Gallagher and Dorsey, and then Charles Curley and [Horace] Bristol. And we had Navy orders that allowed us to go any place we wanted to go and, when we got done, to go home. It was fantastic.
“It was really a wild kind of thing.”
ASMP: How did you come to join ASMP? Steichen didn’t introduce you, did he?
Miller: No. I returned to Chicago after World War II.
ASMP: Is that your home town?
Miller: I was born and raised there. I worked there freelancing, and I became aware that being in Chicago was not being in New York where the publishers are. I felt very much out of things. I wanted some kind of representation, or a sense of contact with the heart of things. So I joined ASMP in 1947.
I did know a lot of the photographers across the country; I met them during the war. And ASMP was a small group of photographers at that time. The photographic world was a very small one. It might have been Barrett Gallagher who got me in touch with it. Vic Jorgenson was also part of our group.
ASMP: Where were you meeting then? Herb Giles told me about the Hotel Vanderbilt.
Miller: I’d say the Hotel Vanderbilt is one place, and I can’t remember anything else. It’s all a pleasant haze.
ASMP: So you don’t remember it as a terribly fighting time?
Miller: Oh, they didn’t get together to accomplish much. The meeting would begin and everybody would start talking at once. It was really a wild kind of thing.
“There were just a few Chicago photographers.”
ASMP: It was a difficult time. When I met you in ‘55, there were only 300 members and there was no membership list because people kept joining and resigning in rage and rejoining. I had a great deal of trouble figuring out what was going on.
As chairman, then, you took Infinity magazine under your wing?
Miller: I took it under my wing because I was there, but also because nobody else was doing anything about it. Well, I don’t want to say they weren’t doing anything about it, because they were. Bob Smallman was very active and did a fine job on it.
ASMP: The magazine was important to ASMP, because nobody else knew the Society existed unless the magazine was sent out.
Miller: I felt it was terribly important, especially because I had understood by not living in New York City that members would like to know more about what’s happening. It’s important that information everybody takes for granted in New York be shared with the troops out in the field.
ASMP: There were just a few Chicago photographers who were with ASMP then. One of them was Mickey Palace. And we got various kinds of reports about Edward Steichen and what a difficult man he was. But I understand from Grace Mayer that you got along fine with him.
Miller: I’m surprised that people found him difficult. I just can’t understand that.
ASMP: When Dan Weiner and I met him, after The Family of Man, to ask about financing, he was very stiff with us because he was embarrassed, I think.
Miller: He had reason to be embarrassed about that. That aspect of the photographers’ pictures being used in The Family of Man was never explored early on to the degree it should have been. So it was a case of patching up afterwards.
“It’s the little things that people don’t know about.”
ASMP: Because Jerry Mason certainly made out like a bandit on it.
Miller: That’s unfair, because Jerry Mason put everything on the line. Nobody else wanted to publish that book. We were turned down by the people who ran Readers Digest; Dick Simon [of Simon & Schuster] turned it down; the publisher of Du magazine turned it down. We couldn’t find anybody to get interested in this.
And then one day on the commuter train from Ridgefield, this young guy came up to Steichen and introduced himself as Jerry Mason. He said he wanted to see if he couldn’t publish a catalog on The Family of Man. Steichen told him, “Thanks very much, but it won’t sell.” Nobody believed that a book of quality black-and-white photographs…. You’ve got to put that kind of photograph in perspective. Up until that time, these were considered snapshots by the public and by the commercial world.
But Jerry kept pestering Steichen, and finally Steichen gave in. But then Steichen went out of his way to find money to backstop Jerry Mason, because Jerry was just getting started as a publisher. Jerry put everything he had, all his credit — not only dollars, but also professional credit — on the line by inveigling people to help out on it. We had no idea that this book would make a go. It was expected to be a flop.
ASMP: Did Steichen get some money from the Museum of Modern Art for Jerry?
Miller: I don’t know if he got money or not, but he was prepared to help him out if Jerry fell on his face. Steichen had a lot of his own personal emotion tied up in this and he wanted a book done; he wanted a record made of this show.
Jerry Mason has been maligned by many, but it’s completely unfounded. The fact that it come out a great success was a great surprise to everybody.
ASMP: I’ve only heard the other side.
Miller: It’s unfortunate. One time, Steichen was on the phone with Jerry, who was in Chicago where the book was being printed. Steichen had the dummy in front of him, and he saw that the inside front and back covers were plain, nothing on them. Steichen asked, “Why can’t we put pictures in those spaces?” And Jerry replied, “It costs more money for that paper to be surfaced on both sides.” Steichen asked how much, and Jerry said it was about $500. Steichen said, “Well, I’ll put up the money to do that.” And Jerry said, “No, I’ll do it. If you really believe that, I’ll do it.”
It’s the little things that took place that people don’t know about. At the time, those were big dollar decisions.
“I was able to taste so much of the world.”
ASMP: The next thing in your career was that you went to Magnum. Have you been working professionally right up to now?
Miller: No, I’m retired from photography. I still have stock, though, and Magnum still handles my files.
ASMP: I heard you are running a vineyard.
Miller: I have a vineyard, and I also have some commercial forest land — redwood and Douglas Fir — where we’re able to harvest some timber every year.
ASMP: I’ve always treasured that darling picture [on the ASMP catalog cover] of that little naked boy playing the piano. That’s your son, right?
Miller: Yes. That little boy, Peter, is now 43 years old. He’s been married three times and has two children.
We have four children. I did a book called The World is Young and all four of them are in there. And the picture in Family of Man of the baby being born is my oldest boy.
ASMP: If you had it to do over again, would you be a photographer? Do you think that was a good thing to do?
Miller: To me, it was the only possible thing to do. I was able to taste so much of the world. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to experience it.
Chicago’s South Side, 1946-1948. Text by Gordon Parks, Orville Schell and Robert B. Stepto. These photographs chronicle a black Chicago of fifty years ago. Miller had just returned from serving as a photographer in the Pacific during World War II, and received two Guggenheims to pursue this project of urban documentation. In the U.S., this book can be ordered through Photo-Eye.
A Baby’s First Year. Text by Benjamin Spock (1956). This groundbreaking book is long out of print, but Dr. Spock went on to become a virtual franchise in the child-rearing-manual business. Many of the theories he espoused in the early years were later repudiated, but his original gift for sane advice and practical how-to tips reassured an entire generation of parents.
The World is Young. Text and photos by Wayne Miller (1958). Now out of print, but still available through used and rare-book dealers; we found it listed on LovedStuff.com