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In Print: the education of Howard Seth Miller

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Of the one-tenth of 1 percent of the total population that thinks of giving books of black-and-white photography as Christmas gifts, nine-tenths of them will give books by Ansel Adams. The remainder will divide themselves fairly evenly among, probably, Robert Mapplethorpe, Bruce Weber, and oh, does Diane Keaton have a book out this year? The percentage that will buy Howard Seth Miller's School is too small to be measured, even with sophisticated instruments.

"The spine takes up only about an eighth of an inch on the shelf," Miller says. "So it's hard to see." The shelf he's talking about is in the store at the Art Institute, one of the three places in town that sell his book. The other two are the Museum of Contemporary Art and Barbara's Bookstore, where, he says, "it's in with the Marilyn Monroe books."

Miller, a local photographer, published School himself with the help of grant money. The design, manufacture, and distribution of the book are up to him. A lot of people attempt this sort of thing, at great personal expense and with even greater expectations, and a lot of their books aren't very good. But if a book is good, people will buy it, right? What do you think? Though Miller hasn't labored in total obscurity (Chicago magazine ran a selection of the photos in October 1989), the quietness with which School hit the water strikes him as, well, unfair somehow.

"Nobody knows about it," he says. "It's a very personal book, and there's not a naked body on the cover. But if people don't see it, it's like it doesn't exist. I wish someone would accuse it of being racist or something, so I could go on talk shows and defend it." That isn't likely to happen, though, because the book isn't.

What it is is a collection of 42 highly evocative black-and-white photographs that Miller took in elementary schools here in Chicago, where he's been living for the past seven years, and in New York, where he's from. He has an eye for childhood. Many of the photos are about such things as a child's first considering the idea of, say, "air." Or "yesterday." Words on chalkboards, broken up by blasts of sunlight, form mysterious poems about the universe. Even in the photos where children are not actually present, their science projects and paraphernalia make you aware of them, and you're reminded of your own grade-school classrooms, and how they were both safe and scary. The photos are interspersed with essays composed by Miller and written--appropriately--on lined paper.

This is perhaps not the easiest point in history for a photographer to do what Miller does. Or maybe it's the best, because almost no one else is doing it--and what that is is taking pictures of real people doing real things in real situations, without benefit of studios, assistants, or catered lunches. Or news hooks. It's not modern. It's what you do in art school but later abandon when you realize no one's ever going to pay you to do it. One of the pleasures of Miller's work is its maturity--he has stuck with it long enough to have arrived at a style that's recognizably his own. His photos are, by today's standards, grossly unmanipulated. He might use a soft-focus lens and will, on rare occasions, bounce some available light over to where he'd rather have it. But he's not much for technical fooling around. And even though one of his favorite subjects--children--is hardly unplowed photographic ground, he finds new, unsappy things to show about them. He says he "can feel their minds at work," and you believe it.

Lately Miller has been shooting in alleys, which he likes for their feeling of danger ("the last time I went out, a little girl was beating a stuffed dog to death") and for the "interesting mess" of Dumpsters. Working in the real world as he does, the lack of control he has over his subject matter, not to mention passersby, is alternately exhilarating and exhausting. "I'm constantly starting from scratch," he says. "People have been throwing things at me. Or I'll be in an alley and someone will come up to me and sort of bother me and I'll have to explain who I am and what photography is, right there in the alley. That doesn't happen to you when you're working in a studio."

School is available in the stores mentioned above and by mail from Copper Beech Press, 1502 W. Arthur, Chicago 60626. It's $16.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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