Photography takes many forms, today we are happy to share the work of Peter Miller.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., a northern outpost of Appalachia with three rivers, many hills, onion-domed churches, lots of snow in the winter, a former iron and steel center. I graduated Columbia in New York, did a Ph. D. in Sociology at Berkeley, and consulted for clients at the Stanford Research Institute. One of these was Honda, who brought me to Japan in 1977 to help with their first U.S. auto plant. After some back-and-forth, I stayed, and have lived in Japan since 1981.
I continued consulting for various high-tech clients, and again as chance would have it, one of these made an ultraviolet light source for the printing and semiconductor industries. Coincidentally, I had seen the 19th-century photogravures of Peter Henry Emerson at a 1989 museum exhibit, and learned that this technique uses ultraviolet light. I moved from Tokyo to Kamakura in 1991, built a photogravure workshop, taught myself the photogravure technique, and held the first exhibit in an unused store in Kamakura the following year. In the 23 years since I started doing photogravure, I’ve held some thirty exhibits in Japan, America, France, England, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, and Russia, among others. These days, I’m organizing exhibits with other artists in an effort to see what contemporary Asian art means to viewers around the world.
How did you get started in photography?
From the age of six, photography was my way of exploring my surroundings in Pittsburgh. Through a primitive box camera I looked at snow scenes, railroad tracks, steel mills, light-and-shadow patterns, people in various ethnic neighborhoods, streetcars, amusement parks, friends — whatever caught my eye. Later I set up a home darkroom; that was then the fastest way I could get to see the images. I recall winding rolls of 35-mm film onto stainless-steel reels and immersing them into tanks of home-made developer and fixer. Traveling West, worshiped nature, mesmerized by the grand visions of Ansel Adams and others. In college, I did some of the covers for the Columbia Review. Moving to Japan unleashed other interests explored this new (to me) environment photographically. I resumed an interest in mountain-climbing and skiing, becoming the first foreign member of the All-Japan Alpine Photographers Association.
I have always responded to new experiences visually and photographically. Putting together a coherent series of images, it seems, is a way of making sense of the unknown. In doing so, I avoid ‘must-see’ sights and just walk around or take trams to discover what is visually interesting, as I did as a child in Pittsburgh.
Which photographers and other artists work do you admire?
Peter Henry Emerson, an American who practiced photogravure in England in the 1880s and 1890s, inspired my own efforts. The marvelous simplicity and tonal subtlety of his images of the Norfolk tidelands and its people continue to inspire. In the etchings of Rembrandt, every line matters, the extraordinary range of tone is matched by an equally extraordinary range of emotion. The Japanese ink-brush painters Sesshu and Sesson developed a similarly wide range of tonal and emotional expression in a very different context. Whistler’s etchings evoke the shimmering charm of Venice even in its backwaters — he was really the first Impressionist, before the name existed. In the 20th century, Stieglitz and Coburn, both of whom did photogravure, exalted the mystery of urban imagery. Jackson Pollock brought American art to a pinnacle in mid-20th century Abstract Expressionism with an energy and verve that have never since been surpassed. Among recent photographers, Wynn Bullock stands out as one who explores in-depth the mystery of life.
Would you share with us an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.
A photo by Hiroshi Hamaya of a village called Tokamachi, in Japan’s snow country, evokes the furusato (hometown) feeling through children on their way to school fitted-out with rice-straw that looks like wings, making them symbols of the life that will emerge in the spring. Simple and profound at the same time, Hamaya’s photo transforms an ordinary moment into a vivid recollection, which is why it stays with me.
If no one saw your work, would you still create it?
With any artwork, it’s good to ask ‘Who is this for?’ No one specifically requested it. They don’t even know they want it — yet! There is a strong desire for hand-crafted things, to relieve the excessive perfection of computerized graphics. With my photogravure etchings, I think of the micro-landscape of the etched copperplate as akin to the Zen notion of wabi-sabi, something rough, imperfect, asymmetrical, unfinished, organic. If in printing the plate I can impart that quality to the prints, they are most attractive. That sense of craft and Japanese sensibility is what the people who acquire my prints are looking for. Yet if the prints are made only to satisfy clients, something is lost, the style becomes mannered and boring. To stay fresh, it has to have that spark of spontaneous chance that sets it apart from the glossy perfection of goal-oriented behavior. In that space, I have to forget about viewers, then comeback to them when it’s done, saying ‘here, I hope you like it’.
Why photogravure etchings ?
There’s nothing like the depth, texture, and tonality of intaglio for connecting sight and touch, for going directly to ‘the heart of the matter’. More than a century-and-a-half after photogravure was invented — by Talbot in England and Niépce in France — the way it enlivens the world we think we know is still magical. The archival quality of photogravure is ensured by carbon-based inks, which last for eons, which is why carbon is used for geological dating. Photogravure is part of the same lineage as engraving, etching, and aquatint going back to the 1500s with Durer, Rembrandt, and Goya.
Please tell us about your process and what the perfect day of photography is for you.
The photo is the beginning. No, imagination is the beginning. No again, it’s really a matter of being open to the unexpected, guuzen-sa as we say in Japanese. Now you can’t search for surprises, and that’s the point: to free yourself from any purpose. So I don’t try to record or document anything, and I certainly don’t capture anything. There’s no particular place or person or subject that I’m after. If I’m looking for anything at all, it’s an arrangement of black-and-white or light-and-shadow that corresponds to some state of mind. A state of mind that might be located in the past, a memory perhaps, or in the future, an anticipation or expectation or longing. When that ‘clicks’, it’s a good day of photography.
About the process.
Photogravure etching needs an incredible — but pleasurable! — amount of time. Since 1991, I’ve created, etched, printed, and published 312 editions. That’s an average of less than 15 editions per year. Selecting from among numerous photos those that are worth this major investment of time and effort is the next step.
I look for qualities in the scene and the photo that lend themselves to the particular ink-on-paper (or washi) look of photogravure, qualities like depth, texture, and tonality, that are independent of any subject matter. Different kinds of light-and-shadow balance, near-to-far progression, distribution of sharp focus versus haze, might be found in natural forms such as fog, rock surfaces, skin, sand, waves, trees, etc. These might give rise to emotions such as the sense of foreboding associated with dark clouds, or the sense of mystery associated with reflections, or the joy of something luminous.
I exclude anything that cries out for some stock response, any hint of snark or lack of respect for the subject, and anything that might appear staged. Finally, I look for specifically Japanese qualities, regardless of whether the scene originates in Japan or not. Certain philosophical themes intended for an exhibit or a book or a Series I’m engaged in also influence this selection.
What challenges do you face as a photographer?
One major challenge is finding a perspective that encompasses the whole experience, because often the various elements are far apart. Video is very good at putting together related images in emotional sequence. In still photography, the challenge is to see all of these ‘at a glance’ in one or a series of images. Another challenge is removing the clutter. Many photographers don’t bother, justifying their approach on the grounds that they take the world as they find it. That style has been around for a century or more. Street and urban photography is done that way because ‘that’s the way it is’. But the world as it is awfully cluttered, and really much of the clutter is better forgotten, like many of the snapshots in that genre. It may be true that hidden gems await discovery in garbage, but you have to look through a lot of garbage to find them. I would rather search for scenes of glory in plain view, waiting as needed for the light or a suitable human.
If you could go out and shoot with another photographer living or passed who would it be?
Tetsuya Noda, because he is so good at noticing things — stray details that on second glance turn out to be significant. I would like to witness the thought process that transforms personal observations of apparently fleeting interest into images that live on independently of their sources. Many try to do this; few succeed.
How do you view this time in the history of photography?
Advances in computer technology in every phase of image-making, from recording to storage, processing, printing, publishing, communicating, and other forms of sharing, have opened up previously undreamed-of possibilities in photography. Today’s image sensors (CCDs) are already as sensitive as film and will continue to improve. We have hardly even begun to explore the creative potential of image-processing software. The technology advances, but our minds have a hard time keeping up — for example, it’s still generally accepted that photographs render a true picture of events, people, objects, documents, etc. Yet news and fashion photos often distort what they purport to represent. We appreciate extensive video-editing, even in documentaries, yet still photos that are edited seem to lose authenticity. Until a consensus of acceptable still-photo editing emerges, photography will continue to be held back from realizing the great potential of the available technology. Before photography,Canaletto, Vermeer, and others used lenses to outline their paintings — but they didn’t just copy what they saw through the lens, they re-arranged buildings, people, interiors to suit their own aesthetic purposes.
Advances in computerized imagery have generated a corresponding desire for hand-crafted graphics, like photogravure etching. I’m not an antiquarian, though. I use a computer in every phase of my practice except the actual plate-making, etching, and printing. I’ve met people around the world who first became familiar with my gravures through my websites or social media. Without the Web, that would never have been possible. Coordinating the exhibits I’ve organized with other artists in New York and Paris, at venues in Eastern Europe and Russia, would have been unthinkable without current computer resources. In publishing books with similarly dispersed collaborators, I also give thanks for what computers and the Web have enabled. The present is a time of greatly expanded creativity for photography and all the arts.
How do you over come a creative block?
By doing something unexpected, seeking out new experiences, experimenting with a previously untried variation on the photogravure technique, allowing myself to respond without restriction to a new situation, place, or person.
Also by re-reading old manuals of technique, re-viewing artwork that once inspired me, reading my etching and printing notes, searching for something on the Web and letting the search go in serendipitous directions.
Travel almost always stimulates creative endeavor, if there’s enough time after dealing with all the logistics and gatekeepers to reflect on what one is experiencing.
What do you hope the viewer takes from your images ?
More ability to observe their surroundings, to notice interesting things great and small that might otherwise escape their attention: Above all, to see for themselves, develop their own preferences, and enjoy art they can live with.
Would you like to share a story about one of your images?
The print ‘Broth of Life’, is a scene of the kombu (kelp) harvest in Erimo, Hokkaido. Just as we arrived at Erimo, a four-year-old girl spontaneously took my hand and led me to where her family was spreading out the kombu to dry on the rocks. She introduced her friends, then her pet seal, which turned out to be a piece of driftwood that looked very much like a seal. From that vantage-point, the view of the entire length of drying kombu appeared — thanks to Naoko-chan.
The title ‘Broth of Life’ comes from the fact that 90 percent of the kombu in Japan is harvested here at Erimo, Hokkaido. It is a staple of daily life, at once part of everyone’s life and the livelihood of these seafaring communities. It resembles the woven rope seen at temples and shrines — symbols of harmony and strength.
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
The printmaking practice gives me a sense of what to look for, what forms, textures, and shapes will ‘translate’ best into the graphics of ink on paper or washi. The artwork is really an alternate universe of perception, co-existing with the practical necessities of maneuvering my bicycle through traffic, finding the right train, buying supplies, or whatever. On the train, I might think about technical problems like ultraviolet exposure or which prints to select for an upcoming exhibit. I might make a mental note to get off the train sometime at a station that I normally pass by, so that I can explore what looks interesting from the train window.
Creating art clarifies the ‘big picture’ of the world, like the denial of experience that lies at the root of today’s toxic political culture. From this comes the campaign to promote ideology over observable experience, inducing a weird doublethink as the wished-for state of affairs recedes ever-further from the actual state of affairs. Hence the spread of conceptual art and its related denigration of craft, the enlistment of art as propaganda for the cause du jour, and the tendency to reduce art to argument.
Photogravure being technically unforgiving, if any one of its numerous conditions is not met, the etching fails. When this happens, the mistake is my fault, I can’t blame it on anyone else or on society. While this may seem harsh, in fact it means the resources for correcting the mistake are within the scope of my personal responsibility, seeking improved, realistic understanding of what works and what doesn’t work. In the printmaking workshop, distinguishing actual from wished-for results is essential.
While we cannot escape irrational forces in international or personal relations, we can offset them with what might be termed irrational counter-forces. Art is one of these, along with music, religion, science, and other creative endeavors. All of these cultural artifacts stimulate irrational counter-forces in a positive way. These activities are vitally important for the overall welfare and health of society because they are the only effective resources we have for opposing and neutralizing the demoniacal forces unleashed by tribal ideology and war.
Where can we see your work, and would you like to share any upcoming projects?
My Websites are one place to start:
Thank you Peter for sharing your work and words with Rfotofolio.
Also to learn more about Hiroshi Hamaya, please visit Magnum Photo.
You can find more information about Peter Miller and other photographers
by visiting our page The Photographers.
“A beautiful interview – Peter’s thoughts and images have an eloquent integrity.” Barbra Bullock-Wilson.