The guitarist sits alone; his only friend is his instrument. Dwarfed by the columns of the public, yet empty, space around him, he is one with the sound. We can almost hear the notes echoing through the still air. The lighting in “Solo” underscores the sense of contrast; we are aware that this musician is a singular person, yet we are also pretty sure, from the architecture, that this is a building in an urban setting. On his blog, the photographer describes this scene as an act of courage as well: “It takes courage to find your song (in life) and, if you’re musical, to share it right in the middle of the big city. Even when no one seems to listen or care.”
Street photographer Steve Miller exemplifies the courage it takes to pursue a passion at a time in life when people are often expected to sit back and relax after a career doing something they may or may not have felt passionate about. In 2002, after many years running non-profit agencies dedicated to doing good works in this world, Miller “left the board room for the darkroom,” as he puts it. He was in his mid-fifties. Of the impetus for this major life change, he says, “I’m not happy with the state of the world. Despite having spent most of my adult career running charitable organizations designed to improve the human condition, I fear the world has become an angrier place, though more connected. Somehow I think we need to be reminded of our humanity.” And that is what drives him as he strolls pavements and parks with an eye toward recording moments that do just that. Moments that remind and inspire.
Miller is drawn to light and shadow as well, and will often wait for — or in — a particular kind of lit atmosphere, sensing that the image is right there, about to show itself. It’s the singular image that he feels best communicates the sense of shared humanity he wishes to express, not the 24/7 streaming visuals we are currently bombarded with on our various electronic devices and screens. As he will stop and sit expectantly for the shot to present itself, so do his photographs ask the viewer to sit with the feelings they evoke.
Born in San Francisco and raised in Seattle, Miller was exposed to a broader world-view thanks to his father’s career as the manager of a television station. (He recalls one evening when he was fortunate to have dinner with Edward R. Murrow, the legendary broadcast journalist.) When Miller was 13, his dad gave him an 8mm camera. An early project was to record the construction of the Space Needle, one frame at a time, so that he could play it back after the tower was completed, compressing the monthslong process into a mere three minutes. “I also shot a few images with my dad’s Rolleiflex,” he says, adding ruefully, “I later sold that camera, like an idiot, to make money toward a down payment on a house.”
In high school, Miller encountered a teacher who was a destructive influence, telling him he shouldn’t go to college. On the flip side, though, while working in a television art department at the age of 16, he found a mentor there: a man by the name of Frank Yamasaki. “Frank was a talented graphic designer, among other things. Of Japanese descent, he taught me about the value of simplicity in both design and writing.” Miller did go on to college, earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from Eastern Washington University.
After graduation, however, photography took a back seat to his commitment to social causes, and Miller’s adult professional life encompassed various leadership roles with United Way of America; he began as a public relations assistant and ended as CEO of an Ohio-based United Way. During that time, he married and raised a family, and due to the rigors of his profession, they moved often and lived in seven states. “So I have a good sense of different cultural environments in the U.S., ranging from San Francisco to Sioux City,” he says.
“I loved what I was doing,” he affirms, “but I felt there was another person inside me that needed to be heard — without the understandable expectations of being a quasi-public figure.” To give that inner entity a voice, he turned back to photography in his forties. “Not being good at developing color, I opted for the much simpler process of black-and-white. I also felt that, without the allure of color, it was more incumbent on the content to support the image. I shot mostly people — but not with excellence. Around 1999, a prominent philanthropist saw my work and encouraged me to get more training, which I did, first at the Maine Photographic Workshops and later through various mentors. Additionally, I narrowed my interest to street photography as a way to record — and hopefully influence — the human condition.” Eventually, it was clear to Miller that he couldn’t run an organization and find time to record the lives of people on streets around the world. The choice was easy.