Wayne F. Miller, photographer, dies at 94

May 25, 2013

Wayne F. Miller, a photographer who captured some of the first images of the destruction of Hiroshima, Japan, after it was struck by an atomic bomb during World War II and who created an indelible photograph of the birth of his son, died May 22 at his home in Orinda, Calif. He was 94.

A granddaughter, Inga Miller, confirmed his death to the Associated Press. The cause was not immediately released.

Mr. Miller had more than 100 assignments for Life magazine, when it was a leading showcase of photography, and in the 1940s took a memorable series of images of African American life in Chicago.

In 1955, he helped assemble one of the most monumental photographic exhibitions of the era, “The Family of Man,” which was curated by his mentor, Edward Steichen, one of the most prominent photographers of the early 20th century.

“Steichen was a father figure to me,” Mr. Miller told Smithsonian magazine in 2009. “He was a fascinating teacher, never criticizing, always encouraging.”


This undated photo provided by his family shows renowned American photographer Wayne F. Miller. Miller, who produced some of the most indelible combat images of World War II and created a ground-breaking series of portraits chronicling the lives of black Americans in Chicago, died Wednesday, May 22, 2013 at age 94. (Joan B. Miller/AP)

They met in the early 1940s, when Steichen was running a documentary photography unit for the Navy. He hired Mr. Miller, then a young Navy officer, to be part of the project.

His orders were succinct, if indirect: “Proceed where you deem necessary, and upon completion, return.”

Mr. Miller traveled on Navy ships throughout the war and narrowly escaped death several times. One of his strongest photographs from the war shows a wounded pilot as he is rescued from his crashed airplane.

When he was stationed in Washington in April 1945, Mr. Miller made a series of photographs of a grieving nation as the funeral procession of Franklin Delano Roosevelt made its way from Warm Springs, Ga., to the White House.

Four months later, Mr. Miller was among the first photographers to document the destruction at Hiroshima, which had been leveled by an atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945.

“We could make any photographs we wanted and not be censored in the field,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1997. “That was very unusual.”

After capturing horrific scenes of war, Mr. Miller created what may have been his most memorable photograph — an image of life in all its promise.

It was the birth of his son, David, on Sept. 19, 1946, which was also Mr. Miller’s birthday. (The doctor delivering the baby was Mr. Miller’s own father.)

The black-and-white image, showing the baby’s umbilical cord still attached, is in many museum collections and was included in a time capsule aboard the Voyager spacecraft. In 1955, it became a centerpiece of “The Family of Man” exhibition.

As Steichen’s chief assistant, Mr. Miller spent two years sifting through an estimated 2 million photographs before settling on 503 images from 68 countries. The exhibition was held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

“The Family of Man” showed people from almost every culture of the world and became a symbol of international reconciliation after World War II. A book of its images sold more than 4 million copies. The exhibition also was among the first to elevate documentary photography to a distinct art form, separate from the pages of newsprint.

From 1946 to 1948, Mr. Miller focused on chronicling life in the African American communities of Chicago’s South Side. He photographed the entire panoply of life: children at play; men in pool halls; women cooking at home; weddings; nightclubs where Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Muddy Waters were performing.

Largely forgotten for 50 years, the photographs were later shown in exhibitions and collected in a book.

“The South Side was a lovely community,” Mr. Miller told the Chronicle in 1998. “Here I was, a young white guy with a Rolleiflex around my neck and a pocket full of flashbulbs. I walked the streets and went to the bars. I was invited into people’s homes. . . . They felt I wasn’t taking something from them. I was helping them express themselves.”

Wayne F. Miller was born Sept. 19, 1918, in Chicago. He graduated from the University of Illinois in 1940, then spent a year in art school in California before entering the Navy.

He had frequent assignments, for Life magazine, Ebony, the Saturday Evening Post, National Geographic and other publications, and was president of the Magnum photo agency in the 1960s.

Survivors include his wife, Joan Miller; four children; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Mr. Miller gave up photography in the 1970s and concentrated on efforts to preserve the redwood forests of Northern California, where he had lived since 1950.

He still kept the Rolleiflex camera that he had used to capture his most memorable photographs.

“I’ve had that Rollei since World War II,” he said in 1998. “I’m still trying to afford a new one.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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