Greg Miller: Unto Dust
Guggenheim Fellow, Greg Miller, chronicles American life with a cinematic and exquisite capture of ordinary people doing ordinary things, using his large format camera to transform the everyday into a thing of beauty and pathos. Greg has a new monograph of his twenty-year project, Unto Dust, due to be published in September with L’Artiere Editions in Bentivoglio, Italy. For a limited time, you can support Unto Dust by pre-ordering a signed copy at the discounted price here.
When I moved to New York, I first experienced the tradition of ashes for Ash Wednesday as part of the observance of Lent. I told a few people that I worked with that they had something dark on their forehead, and learning of the reason, I didn’t make that mistake again. 20 years ago, Greg asked a New Yorker the same question. Fascinated by the juxtaposition of the ancient ritual against the backdrop of contemporary New York City, he began documenting Ash Wednesday every year using his large format 8-by-10 inch view camera. Unto Dust showcases over 40 distinctive portraits of workers, business people, tourists and other New Yorkers on the first day of Lent made over the course of two decades.
Greg Miller was born in 1967 in Nashville, Tennessee. Miller’s work utilizes the serendipity of street photography and portraiture to build insightful, narrative photographs.
Miller’s work has been included in several solo shows in Los Angeles, Barcelona and the Cheekwood Museum in Nashville, TN as well as invitational group shows in New York City, including Yossi Milo, James Danziger and Sasha Wolf Galleries. Since 1988, his work has appeared in TIME, The New York Times, Esquire and New York Magazine among many others. His work is in the permanent collections of institutions, museums and private collections worldwide.
Miller is a faculty member at the International Center of Photography in New York and visiting
MFA faculty at the Maine Media Workshops + College.
Since the early 1990’s I had been a street photographer. On February 12, 1997 I was out on the street, like I was on most days and I happened to notice people had smudges of ashes on their foreheads. That first encounter began this odyssey of photographing Ash Wednesday every year for twenty years. Early on it surprised me that people were so willing to be photographed. Even though I am used to photographing strangers, I felt a little apprehensive about asking them on Ash Wednesday because the ritual seemed so deeply personal and private to me. But most just agreed. In fact, they were upbeat.
My initial interest in Ash Wednesday was the visual juxtaposition of the contemporary with the ancient. I encounter my subjects on their way to Saks Fifth Avenue, an important meeting, on a cigarette break, or running to catch a train, yet they wear the mark of an ancient ritual. I have since learned a lot about Ash Wednesday, its history and significance, but I still come back to this contrast, and to the contrast of the public display of such a private act. In the photograph of the police officer, he told me that he wasn’t supposed to be photographed on the job but he decided to do it anyway. His is one of the most mysterious faces I’ve ever photographed. He’s wearing the uniform, he’s completely closed yet his face reveals so much.
Another aspect of this project is that it is a one-day-a-year project. Although I have been photographing for 20 years, that’s only 20 days when you think about it. It is very meditative. There is something of a ritual in it for me as well because I photograph in this same way every year. Ash Wednesday falls on a day usually in late winter so they are often some of my first pictures of the year. I am breaking my photographic winter fast and not unlike the people in my pictures, connecting with my impermanence being a photographer.
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