by Martin H. Miller
A MIDDLE-AGED man meets an attractive young woman. She promptly takes off her clothes. A number of other young women disrobe when they meet the same fellow.
That fellow is me.
How did this come about? It is an unanticipated result of devotion to a hobby. The hobby has also been responsible for a host of other adventures, none envisaged when I bought a camera and an enlarger 30 years ago and took the first steps toward learning to operate them.
When I began, I had no realization that this new interest would someday bring me to the White House where the Prime Minister of Great Britain would nod to me as if we had met before. (We hadn’t.) Or to the Vatican where Pope Paul VI would ignore me as I darted in front and behind him as he distributed blessings and medals to special guests at an audience in St. Peter’s. Or to a tent in the desert adjoining Beer-Sheba to exchange smiles with Sheik Achmed Joma Abu Takfa, a robed figure from Biblical times sporting a twentieth-century wrist watch.
What may be my most significant contribution to the welfare of my neighborhood was due to the hobby. This was the installation of a traffic light at the head of our street, thereby making possible safe entrance into busy East West Highway.
The hobby was responsible for my being given the name “Mai Mu-Ting” and a handsome carved stone chop by a talented Chinese friend from Hong Kong, and for my being cited in a photographic publication last summer as having been foolish for accepting “only” $1035 in prize money for a photo in 1954.
The Timing Couldn’t Have Been Worse
MY involvement with photography began under the most improbable conditions. I was out of a job and very worried. Prospects for a new one were slim. I had a family to support. In addition, some extra financial burdens had been thrust upon me.
These were the circumstances when our downstairs neighbor cheerfully announced that he was selling a camera outfit for a co-worker and that I should buy it. The $200 price would have been a formidable one for me for a personal purchase at the time. What impelled me to go ahead with it then I don’t know. But I did. I was embarked on an interest that was to add unforeseen dimensions to our lives, occupy a great deal of my time and thoughts, intensify my appreciation of the world around me, bring new challenges, some frustration, much happiness, and much fulfillment.
I met early the kindness of photographers. After loading my newly-acquired camera, I had gone around pointing it right and left, at our children and their friends, at dogs, cats, trees, sidewalks. I saw artistic subjects everywhere. Then came the difficult task of threading the film on a reel. This I did, hovering among the coats in our hallroom closet to assure complete darkness. Next, in the bathroom, came the pouring of chemicals into and out the tank into which I had placed the reel with the film. Finally, it was time to take out the film. Great excitement, apprehension, and then happiness. The film had been developed. True, on close examination, my wife, Helen, and I could see where, on a few frames, I had cut off a forehead or amputated the feet of my subjects, or had missed completely. But we had negatives. We were on the way.
The next step was even more exhilarating. This was the making of prints. The capping moment was the emergence of an image on the photographic paper I had immersed a few moments before in a tray of developer. Here was magic. Our first photograph! It looked magnificent as did the ones that followed. Even in the dim, orange-tinted darkroom light, they glistened with vitality.
Each print in turn we transferred to the remaining trays, finally washing them twice the recommended time to make certain the fixing bath was entirely removed, blotting off the excess water, and placing them between towels to dry overnight. The next morning I arose early to look at the prints. To my chagrin, they were only gray, anemic imitations of the masterpieces we had seen in the tray of developer. That evening as soon as it got dark – my enlarger on the kitchen table, the trays on the sink and oven, a makeshift cover over the window – we tried again. Again the same exciting images came up in the tray of developer. Again the next morning revealed sickly prints.
My dejection was great. It was noticed by a young woman working at our neighborhood food store. When I told her the reason, she said, “My sister is a photographer. She will help you.” And help she did. Her sister, a successful free-lance photographer, spent two evenings with us outlining the fine points of print making. What a difference it made when the prints were properly exposed under the enlarger and then permitted to “season” in the developer for a sufficient period of time.
Our rescuing angel was Helen Balmer. She was the first of a very large number of men and women to whom I am indebted for instruction, encouragement, inspiration, and friendship. When Helen Balmer heard there was someone seriously interested in photography who needed help, she came to his aid. She gave her time – which was precious – and her knowledge – which was extensive. In her generous act, she typified what I found later was true of other outstanding photographers. Photographers are highly competitive. They want their photographs to be the ones which are awarded prizes or selected for exhibition or publication. They want their photographs to be the ones which win the commissions or bring in the contracts. At the same time, both amateur and professional photographers belong to societies which devote themselves to advancing the expertness of their members. They consider it an obligation, too, to help other photographers with their practice and enjoyment of photography and an honor to be called upon to do so.
People to People at Home
ONE of the fascinating aspects of photography is the unlimited range of subject matter. For all practical purposes, the only restrictions on what you may photograph are your interests and ingenuity in pursuing them. Many photographers specialize. Joe Spies, for example, is renowned in the Greater Washington Area for his photographs of cats. You marvel at the number of interesting ways he has managed to photograph them. George Brewster specializes in nature subjects. For you and me, a log in the woods may be a handy seat on which to rest. George turns it over and finds a rich world of lizards, mushrooms, and other plant and animal life.
I am drawn to people. People intrigue me. I am happiest when I can portray them in a manner which makes them significant for the viewer whether he knows them or not.
I also want the viewer to feel a spontaneity and a naturalness in the picture. This may be most difficult to achieve, but when you do, it can make the difference between a run-of-the-mill effort and a photo with broad appeal. For example, one summer Saturday we had driven to Cacapon State Park. We were enjoying the beauty of our surroundings and the happy voices of children and adults frolicking in the lake when we spotted an especially attractive youngster. She was running in and out of the water with such energy that I could not adjust my camera quickly enough to get her in focus. Moreover, the people in the water would be distracting elements in a picture. What to do?
The little girl’s parents were willing to have me photograph her. We moved a few feet so we could have a small space to ourselves and also an intriguing pattern of reflections in the water. Then her father plunked her down in our “theater,” and her mother placed a dab of mud on her hand. Both parents moved quickly out of the scene. The beautiful little girl, quiet for a moment as she looked with puzzlement at the mud on her hand, made an ideal subject.
The parents were pleased with the resulting photograph. They thought it only proper when the photo was awarded a prize and was printed in the Washington Star. I was pleased, too.
Photos like that of the little girl permit a degree of planning. With others, the photographer has to be ready for the magic moment. This occurred with the photo, “The Star Spangled Banner,” which is one of the four in this issue of the Boxwooder. Our younger daughter, Nancy, and I were attending the Armed Forces day program at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington. It was a thrilling occasion, but it was not until the very end, at the flag lowering ceremony, that I felt I had my big chance. The expression on a little boy’s face spoke more eloquently of America’s real strength than had all the fabulous military equipment I had been photographing that May afternoon. I concentrated on getting the picture without distracting the boy.
There were two unexposed frames in my camera. I got the picture on the very last exposure as the ceremony came to an end, and the crowd began to scatter. Perhaps luck had something to do, too, with my going up to the boy, seven-year-old “Speedy,” and his father, Commander George T. Lillich, to ask permission to use the picture “if it comes out.” That was the first time I had done this. And it was a break that, having had a father who was an avid photographer, Commander Lillich readily agreed.
“The Star Spangled Banner” was first published in the Washington Star on July 4, 1954 as the winner of a $10 prize in the weekly judging in the Newspaper Snapshot Contest. It went on to win $1,035 in prizes and to be published so extensively that the editor of U.S. Camera termed it “The most widely published photograph ever taken by an amateur.”
“Big Swipe,” which also accompanies this article, may illustrate one of the hazards of possessing a strong interest in photography. I was at National Airport for a 7:30 a.m. flight to Detroit. The ticket salesman hadn’t even arrived when I noticed the two window washers. Their movements, the element of design added by the window panes, and the glow of the morning sun on them drew me to the workers like the Pied Piper drew the children from Hamelin. I slipped an orange filter over my camera lens to darken the sky and began shooting. Luckily, some instinct impelled me to look at the ticket counter. The next to the last passenger was checking in. I was the last person to make the flight.
Among the advantages of the hobbyist photographer is that he may concentrate on the subjects which are of special interest to him. One of my goals is to attempt to present the vitality of people in everyday pursuits. Another is to show our love for our country, our pride in its ideals and accomplishments and in its desire to overcome its shortcomings and become an even better America. For example, I view a photograph of demonstrators as depicting the exercise of an important freedom – the freedom to call for the correction of an inequity in the law, or to protest in peace against the ideas of others or to the policies and practices of our government.
I am an unabashed “do-gooder.” Another of my goals is to call attention through photographs to the cheerful aspects of life. Most of us enjoy a good story, and when we hear one or are prompted to smile by a thought or by something we see, we feel better. About this there will be little argument. What may not be quite as obvious is that pictures can be just as successful as words in bringing gaiety, in warming the heart, in inspiring a smile.
People to People Abroad
A photograph made us world travelers and launched me on a “people to people” program. My wife and I had talked about taking a trip to Europe. We hoped we would be able to do so a year or so after we had seen our daughters through their university education. When one of my photos won an unbelievable $4,000 prize in Kodak’s International Newspaper Snapshot Contest, it seemed like an instruction from on high to make the trip. The photo is on the opposite page. The man in the black overcoat carrying an umbrella, is being buffeted by the wind and snow as he passes the fence surrounding the statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Park, across from the White House.
Our first trip abroad, in 1967, made us want to take another. We found that if you couldn’t win a trip, you could buy tickets. We went to Europe again two years later and have since traveled to more countries in Europe, to Canada and Mexico, to Turkey and Israel, and last spring to the Orient. In short, we are now “hooked” on international travel as well as on photography.
I had traveled extensively in the United States because of my work. When I had to be away from my family for long periods, photography made it bearable. I would spend the weekends looking for subjects which were interesting and different. I found that, as in Washington, if approached with good will and friendliness, most people would be willing to be photographed. Talking with people, my camera in hand, was very compatible with my nature.
Now that we are going to new countries, I wanted even more than before to take pictures of people. I wanted to get beyond the usual tourist contacts. I wanted to meet workers, shoppers, housewives, students – people from all walks of life. I wanted to learn something about how they lived and what they thought. But I spoke only English and had not facility for other languages. However, I found a way. It was simple. It was open to everyone with a camera, the casual picture-taker as well as the hobbyist and the professional. And the cost would be less than the price of a cocktail.
All that was involved was resolving to take the photograph of at least one citizen of each country that we visited asking him for his name and address. I did the latter by getting an English-speaking friend or an employee at my hotel to print on a card or piece of paper, “If my pictures come out, I will send you one as a gift. Please give me your name and address.” I also learned the words for “Good Morning,” “Good Afternoon,” and “Thank You.”
It is wonderful to see the courage you acquire when you venture forth determined to shout “Buon Giorno,” “Guten Morgen,” or “Shalom” and to show the message on your card. The dour passer-by becomes a warm, willing subject for your camera, and somehow, despite the language differences, you communicate friendship to one another. You obtain a deeper understanding of the country. You also come up with many human interest pictures instead of being limited to photos of buildings and monuments and “grab shots” of people at a distance.
There is one step more. When you return home and develop your pictures, you make one for each of your new friends and do it as a post card. You address it on the reverse side, print your name and address, and a message, too, and add a 21 or 31-cent airmail stamp, depending on the size of the card.
This approach has brought us many friends, many adventures, and a gratifying response in cards and letters, and, often continuing correspondence. When we return to their countries we see warm friends made through the pictures. Several have come to the United States and have visited us. I even have two friends, one an Indonesian journalist and the other Turkish major general, whom I have met only in letters. They liked the “People to People” approach when they read about it in Hasselblad Magazine and saw my address on the examples of post-card replies I had included.
Sending your photo as a post card is an essential ingredient of your assignment as a “People-to-People Ambassador.” Not only do your photos arrive in better shape than when you send them in letters or parcels, but you obtain a much higher proportion of responses. Possibly, this is because there is something flattering about receiving a photo post card of yourself especially when it is unexpected. For the picture post card idea, I am indebted to my friend, Henry Kaufman, who has brought happiness to many people in Washington through the picture post cards he has sent them.
Photography is a cultural force which crosses national boundaries. One way is through the several hundred exhibitions – “international photographic salons” – which are conducted throughout the world. Photographers of all countries are free to submit entries. It is an honor to have a photo approved by the judges “for hanging.” The photographers whose work is very successful in these salons become known internationally.
One of the most rewarding aspects of our foreign travel is that it has made it possible to meet some of the world’s outstanding salon exhibitors. They have treated Helen and me royally. They have taken us into their homes. They have taken us to dinner, to meet other photographers, and to meetings of their photographic societies. Apart from their personal warmth, I have been impressed with their dedication to helping the photographers of their countries develop their skills and to their support of photography both as an art form and as a medium for advancing international understanding and friendship.
Photography has been a wonderful means for personal expression and personal development. It has enriched our lives with friendship. It has brought us together with fascinating people and with diverse and interesting cultures.
About the Author
“Marty” Miller has been honored for his contributions to photography as a teacher, lecturer, author and judge, and for the many prizes and awards won by his photographs. His work is represented in the Permanent Print Collection of the Photographic Society of America and in their Contemporary Print Collection. He has had numerous exhibitions, including one-man shows at the Smithsonian Institution and the Cosmos Club in Washington, D. C., and a special exhibition, in April, at the National Art Gallery of the Republic of China, in Taipei, in conjunction with the 16th International Salon of Photography of the Photographic Society of China.
His photos have been published extensively in newspapers. They have also appeared in the major American photography magazines and photo annuals and in Hasselblad and FOTO published in Sweden.
Hand set in Deepdene. Display type is Goudy Hand Tooled. Paper is 70-lb Hammermill Ledger. Inks are Van Son Rota Brown, Niagara, and 40904 Black. Picture section was printed commercially by Rich Hopkin’s Pioneer Press. Edited and published by Jake Warner and 620 copies printed by him on a 10×15 C&P.
The Boxwood Press
Greenbelt, Maryland 20770