Joe Mills is liable to be candid, gallerist George Hemphill warned. Sometimes, he added, "embarrassingly so." This wasn't news to me. When the 51-year-old photographer responded to my first e-mail, he added, by way of introduction, a paragraph detailing the aftereffects of his mental breakdown and institutionalization at age 21:
"I came out like a newborn, fragile, totally vulnerable, but with an unshakable knowledge of there being great meaning to this life, of there being an undeniable harmony to 'things,' of there being absolute truth, one that is mirrored by art that is pure."
Since this episode, Mills has striven to make art that does justice to the purity he discovered. The artist's efforts, now on view in two shows in the District, one at Hemphill Fine Arts in Georgetown, the other opening this weekend at the Corcoran Gallery, were considerable.
"Joe had an experience of complete suspension of rational thought," says Paul Roth, who as assistant curator of photography and media arts at the Corcoran Gallery compiled Mills's first solo museum show, "Joseph Mills: Inner City," which opens on Saturday. The 70-plus photographs on view are unflinching glimpses at life on the streets. "Maybe he has access to something the rest of us don't," Roth offers.
During those months when he lost touch with reality, and in contending with subsequent bouts with mental illness, Mills figures he discovered rare creative territory. Now 30-plus years into a photography career, he makes pictures and collages milking that altered state. Not unlike the surrealists, he free-associates visually to free himself from conventional, rational thinking. He hopes to mine this jumbled material for more profound truths.
Mills likens his piecing together of collages to using a Ouija board. "The less you think about it," he says, "the better it works." The images in the many works of this kind on view at Hemphill's Georgetown gallery could have been culled from nightmares. Cocked guns, one-eyed women and tentacled heads all make appearances.
In his street work, Mills documents real-life horrors -- specifically, the gravelly patches of flesh and missing limbs of the destitute denizens of downtown Washington. For about six years beginning in the early 1980s, Mills shot 50,000 frames there. Aiming his camera from the hip instead of looking through the viewfinder, he let chance enter into his compositions. He snapped while he spoke with his subjects or offered them a smoke. "I was getting involved with people's deformities, people's scars," he remembers. "I wasn't happy till I was two inches away from them."
By the time he gave up shooting downtown, he figured the work he'd done there for a failure. Just four years ago, Mills revisited the negatives and found a treasure-trove of significant material, which he printed. It now makes up the whole Corcoran show. Here was another case, Mills said, of "finding, not making."
On District streets, Mills found feet so cracked and dry they have pus-dripping sores. He found a man who scratched straight through his own skin and a woman with nails as long as her fingers. These are some of the toughest shots in the Corcoran show, and they are not the sum of it. There are some brighter moments, but not many.
Mills printed the Corcoran pictures on expired black-and-white photo paper. That makes almost all the pictures look jaundiced, thanks to the paper's weakening chemicals. A few have hints of blush or green or blue, too. Many are so blanched they appear overexposed.
While photographers Diane Arbus and Robert Frank inform this work, Mills says much of his style comes from from his parents. He describes his mother, Anna, as a cross between Martha Stewart and an angel. "If you crawled into a bed she made, it was like crawling back in the womb." But it was Mills's flamboyant, hard-living father, Jack, who really captured the young artist's formidable imagination. Born with a disfigured foot that fascinated Joe, he had perfected a swagger, love of sports cars and strong taste for conservative politics that mesmerized his son. Mills senior invited Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy to be Joe's godfather. When Joe turned 10, the family left Milwaukee for Washington so his father could pursue work with Capitol Hill's Republican leadership. His father went through personal problems in Washington, and Joe's disillusionment was profound. The artist attributes much of his breakdown to this pain.
"I don't think you can underplay the effect of that kind of biography" on Mills's work, says photographer Colby Caldwell, Mills's longtime friend and godfather to his son Dorian.
"On the inside, I was just a disaster," Mills recalls of his ongoing psychic strife. When photographing the mentally ill and homeless on the street, he says, "I took solace in being next to disasters that are more obvious. There were times I wished I could exchange bodies with some of those hunchbacks."
For all their absurdity or grotesqueness, the images bearing Mills's signature reveal beauty, too. It's not a traditional flowers-and-hearts kind of beauty, but a beauty that comes from commitment to truth and lack of judgment. Yes, these pictures are tough to look at. No, we didn't ask to see life quite this bleak. But Mills didn't ask to see it, either.
Joseph Mills: Inner City at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW. Open daily except Tuesday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., extended hours Thursday until 9 p.m., to April 14. Call 202-639-1700.
Photomontagecollage at Hemphill Fine Arts, 1027 33rd St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., to March 8. Call 202-342-5610.