I don’t remember when I first met Greg Miller but I do know when he first made an impression on me. We were riding the subway together, probably having crossed paths at the Village Voice (we both freelanced for them in the early 90s), and he was dismissing Irving Penn as an unimportant photographer. I was in shock, Penn was close to an earthly deity to me and I had never before met anyone who felt otherwise.
He argued defiantly (and intelligently) for the photographers who moved him but what stuck with me was his confidence in casually toppling a giant. I was impressed. And, as his aesthetic developed through the decade I was not surprised to see him cut his own path again, but this time into something mature, and truly new, in his photographs.
He has shot a number of series with his 8×10 camera but my favorite are his Ash Wednesday portraits, titled “Unto Dust”. Perhaps it’s the Roman Catholic in me but I also do love the idea of an on-going street portrait series shot on only one day of the year.
As Easter weekend is upon us I thought that I’d ask Greg about his Ash Wednesday. Below is our Q & A, via email.
How did you come shoot your first Ash Wednesday portraits?
“My first Ash Wednesday” was in 1997. I was living on 32nd St and would take regular daily excursions onto the street with my 8×10 camera. At that time I was challenging myself to learn even more about the camera by photographing people on the street. One of those days happened to be Ash Wednesday. I can’t remember, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I asked my first subject why she had ashes on her forehead. I photographed three people that year. The next year, 1998, I didn’t think about it until I saw people walking around with ashes again. I didn’t photograph that year, but as is often the case, the haunting feeling of not having made a picture is a stronger motivation than any other to make a picture. I couldn’t stand that I had sat out the year. On that Ash Wednesday I committed myself to continue photographing every year and I have ever since.
As a non-Catholic, what has been your impression of the Ash Wednesday tradition?
I was raised a Methodist. My grandfather was a Methodist minister. My wife, Tina, was raised a Roman Catholic. We were engaged at the time this project began and I might have felt a kindred spirit with Catholics because I was about to enter a Catholic family. But I have to say, since it is about remembering faith for a practicing Catholic, as an outsider I see it as a universal demonstration of faith. I believe this is because Catholics cover such a broad demographic: black, white, Irish, Latino, rich, working-class, etc. I see it as a very human activity to have faith.
Most of the time, you can’t tell a Catholic just by looking at them, but on Ash Wednesday, they show their faith for the world to see. You were doing these photos during Catholicism’s most difficult years (with the sexual molestation cases coming forward), did you ever perceive a defensiveness or media-shyness with the subjects?
People do often ask me what is the project about; is it a negative portrayal of Catholics? The answer I give them is that it’s neither pro- nor anti- Catholic, but that my project is about faith in general. Most people are proud of being a part of it. Rarely do people say no. I believe they say no for the same reason anyone says no: they are in a hurry, self-conscious, etc.
There is little serious discussion of religion and religiosity in our culture today, are you partly making these images to fill that void?
That was certainly not my intention, but it might be the outcome. I was recently moved by Thomas Merton’s “Louisville epiphany” in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander: He was a practising Trappist monk who one day realized that there is no separate special world of the holy: “I was suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that I loved all those people…that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers…it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts…the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.” When I read this, I realized that it so closely aligns to the connection that I feel to complete strangers when photographing on the street. Merton could have been a street photographer! My hope is that people can look at this work and see themselves and their neighbors with compassion.
I’ve always thought that Ash Wednesday would make such a perfect book – a series of portraits of New Yorkers on the street, with a small twist. The fact that it’s done over a dozen years, but on the same single day every year, just adds to the magic. Have you approached any publishers with the project?
In the same years I have been producing this work, our industry has seen a terrible decline in book publishing. I see the publishing of this book as an inevitability. However, I am not a publisher. The book is not only about Catholicism or New Yorkers but about a human possibility: if we could begin, and I mean if only a third of us could begin to see the beauty in one another, I believe the world would be a better place. That is what Unto Dust is about.