I haven’t posted a blog since last September. I didn’t start my blog with the idea it would be daily, weekly, or even necessarily a frequent kind of thing. As a friend of mine said, perhaps more complimentary than I deserve, “You don’t want to blog, you want to write.” Well, for better or worse, she was right. If I don’t feel an impulse to say something in words rather than pictures, I don’t. It’s that simple even though I think it’s a lot easier to get something out in words rather than pictures if your pictures depend upon space in a publication or exhibition. Oh, yeah, you can put all kinds of pictures online in various formats and outlets. I don’t, partially because I’m a klutz at such things and also because I tire of looking at the latest iPhone, Instagram…..what ever is the latest flavor of quick imagery, although I’m sure it’s wonderful for lots of people.
My blog seemed to run about once a month until last September and then I stopped. Not intentionally. I just had other things in mind, not all of them pleasant. I was working hard to finish a book of fiction and managed to do so in late October, just before Ani and I left Missoula the first week of November for the long drive back to Virginia. I had a professional set back around that time that caused me to flounder a bit, out of sorts with the way things and professional relationships sometimes work or don’t work. Then I started trying to concentrate on finding an agent for my book. All in all, I had no impetus for reactivating my blog. Yesterday changed that for several reasons. While reading the New York Sunday Times obituaries I saw that of photographer Wayne Miller, who died last Wednesday at his home in California. He was 94.
I first became aware of Wayne Miller in the 1960s when I was a photojournalism/ art student at the University of Minnesota. I was aware of Miller’s work as a Magnum photographer. I knew his book “The World Is Young,” that chronicled his children growing up, and about his work with Edward Steichen in a special Navy combat photography unit during WWII, and later, in the early 1950s, how he helped Steichen in organizing “The Family of Man” exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.” The soft cover book accompanying that exhibit was one of the first photography books I purchased as a student. Married, and the father of four little ones, I wasn’t able to buy a lot of books but that one became well thumbed and still resides in my library.
I eventually met Miller at Visa Pour l’Image in Perpignan, France in early September, 2001. We both had exhibits and we shared tables at several of the group luncheons. In a profession where egos sometimes seem to scale tall buildings, I found Wayne to be a quiet, soft-spoken, unassuming man. His then recent book “Chicago’s South Side: 1946-1948,” was a collection of rich, straight forwardly seen black and white images of African-Americans taken where they lived and interacted. It seemed evident to me that these pictures could only have been made by someone who had gained a certain kind of acceptance. He took that acceptance and made it count.
In Perpignan, Wayne and I discussed the possibility of trading prints. I believe we did trade books, mine being “Portraits Of America,” a retrospective/memoir of my work in America published that year.
I didn’t follow up with any correspondence after we parted, he, I believe to go back to California, me to the Po River country in Italy to finish a Geographic assignment. And to my regret we never made that print trade. How I wish now that we had. Not long ago, maybe a year or less, I thought about Wayne Miller and wondered if he were still alive. Funny, when we met, I didn’t think of him as being old, I wasn’t sure just how old he was. I was surprised to see in the Times that two decades separate our births.
There were and are many photographers in and gone from the profession whose names are perhaps better known than that of Wayne Miller. But I’m not sure there are many with as much simple dignity and class as he seemed to exhibit in that brief time our paths crossed in southern France. That’s something nice to remember.
Late last night as I lay buried beneath the covers, filtering through unread sections of the Sunday Times, public television was showing a documentary called “Hold At All Costs,” a film about a June, 1953 extremely desperate, bloody Korean War battle. It was a horrific slaughter of young men on both sides of the fight for a hilltop called “Outpost Harry.” It is said this film “is about forgotten soldiers in a forgotten battle during a forgotten war.”
When the Korean War started in 1950 I was 13 and that was the month my parents bought me a new Olds Mendez trumpet from Schmitt Music in downtown Minneapolis. The Mendez was the top of the line trumpet made by Olds in Los Angeles. It cost $320.00, a lot of money then. My father didn’t make much, maybe never more than $95.00 a week in his life and probably not that much in 1950. By June of 1953 I was three months short of my 16th birthday, bagging groceries in a neighborhood super market but not really paying much attention to the war in that place called Korea. No one knew for sure but the Korean War would end a month later. When I think about it now, I missed the Korean War by just a handful of years. A decade later I was old enough, plus married with kids, to miss Viet Nam. My first generation children, now middle-aged, missed Viet Nam by a lot and my desire for our 25-year-old son now in grad school is for that same omission of exposure to war. I hope that’s not taken as unpatriotic, it’s just how I feel as a father and about the wars now in question.
“Hold At All Costs” is not an easy film to watch. In an eight-day series of night attacks, Chinese troops, many just youths, were slaughtered by relentless machinegun fire, napalm, and artillery fire called in on the hunkered down defenders’ own positions. American and Greek soldiers, many as young as the Chinese attackers, held that hill under a daily rain of mortars, and artillery fire, followed by brutally close, often hand to hand combat, in the darkness of their trenches and bunkers. Daytime pictures taken of the mangled, torn apart corpses literally covering the landscape between attacks, make some of our famous Civil War battlefield pictures seem almost peaceful and pastoral in comparison.
As the documentary wound to its end, the on-camera testimonies by survivors of those eight days and nights, both men and women, were heart rending as they described commonality of past and present grief. One elderly, white-haired veteran of the battle, sitting in his living room, his hands folded in his lap, says, “No words can adequately describe the noise, the dirt, the screams….” He can’t bring himself to add anything further, choking at the attempt.
To see and hear these men and women no longer young but with memories that seem to be still fresh, clutch at their emotions, trying to hold themselves together, was to feel what a Memorial Day memory may be for some of us and how hard it must sometimes be for so many to remember so much. We all have sad stories harbored in our hearts and minds. I’m deeply grateful I don’t have that kind and very much aware of those who do and the costs they have borne.