Even behind the dignified fringe of white beard, Richard C. Miller seems astonished about all the fuss. In his spacious living room in Calabasas overlooking a sweep of hills, fragrant scrub and what’s left of wild L.A., friends and visiting family members buzz about. There’s a digital audio recorder placed on the dining room table that runs continuously, and so too does a video camera, recording the 95-year-old’s slightest gesture, hoping to catch one more unearthed thought or anecdote.
Miller has long known his way around this sort of excitement, but usually he’s been part of the pack, on the other side of the camera -- a photographer on assignment sizing up the subject, be it Marilyn Monroe or James Dean. But in his private life, he’s kept things quiet, almost reclusive. This not-so-little hideaway, 5 acres he bought in 1962, is symbolic of that quest. “I’ve been here on a big island.”
In the last week or so, however, Miller has been the focal point: Photographers have come by to shoot his portrait, reporters come to ask him about a Hollywood bygone, an L.A. that seems like a dream. A few days ago, representatives from the J. Paul Getty Museum’s department of photography met with Miller and his daughter, Jan, and a few of his friends and supporters to discuss acquisition of some of Miller’s work -- little of it seen publicly for decades, if at all -- for its permanent collection.
Miller is a hidden L.A. treasure, but not for long. Next week, he moves to New York’s Hudson River Valley to live with Jan. These last few days of meetings and packing, coupled with this scatter of paper, celluloid and transparencies spilling out of boxes, bring up a mix of emotions -- the excitement of (albeit belated) recognition, the complexity of saying goodbye.
He wasn’t big on self-promotion; the work, he figured, should speak for itself. And the work that has distinguished him -- much of it using the Carbro process, a printing technique that dates to the early 1900s, producing nonfading prints from pigments rather than dye -- lines the walls of the living room. Prints are propped against the baseboards and spill out of the back closets. Just now, he’s wheeled himself over from the dining room to the living room where his friends Marc Madow, Michael Andrews and Reece Vogel, fellow photographers, have laid out examples of his work to put together another portfolio to take around to galleries that highlights the Carbro prints.
The images glow up from the beige carpet, particularly the blues, the greens, yellows and reds. There’s a lively Monroe in a riding outfit; a portrait of a woman in an electric violet hat, her eyes the color of a blue jay; a spring green jalopy, rusting abandoned against pink desert rock -- “Huh!” he enthuses with sincere amazement, as if really seeing for the first time. “Wow. These are really good! I can’t believe I did all of that.”
“Really, Dick has seen so much. He essentially came in at the beginning of color, and now he’s been here long enough to see film go away and the coming Digital Age,” says Madow, who met Miller in the ‘80s and has been working on a documentary about him and spearheading this campaign to get his name and work out into the world.
The Hollywood years
For seven decades, he made a living working for North American Aviation photographing airplanes and details for service manuals, as freelancer for such magazines as Liberty, This Week, Time, Life and Colliers and later as stringer for Globe Photos, which kept him circulating in the universe of stars -- Elizabeth Taylor, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Jayne Mansfield, Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Billy Wilder, Rock Hudson and Dennis Hopper among them. He was one of the first photographers to shoot Norma Jeane Dougherty (later to be Marilyn Monroe), for True Romance magazine, and one of the last to shoot James Dean, on the set of “Giant.”
“I’d worked with him for a couple of weeks and said to my wife, ‘This is a guy who will be a best friend for life.’ And then -- bango -- he had that accident,” he says. “That was most disastrous.”
No matter how busy he was, he always made it home to dinner with his own family: “You’d always see him with five cameras around his neck, and he was always testing out film,” says Jan Miller. “So you had to be on alert. You’d be sitting eating and he’d swoop in for a shot.”
“She was one of my favorite models,” he says, giving her a wink. “And I didn’t have to pay!”
Photography had always been a part of his life. His minister father was a shutterbug whose favorite subject was his family. “I just remember that he’d get out his old 3 1/4 -by-4 1/4 roll film camera from the time I was a baby. That just got me started,” says Miller. By 9 or 10, he had his own camera and started casting about for subjects. By 16, he’d built himself a darkroom off the garage at the family home on Serano Avenue, a space that had been set aside for chauffeur’s quarters. As he was reading up on photography, training his eye, he got interested in the work of Edward Weston. As it happened, Weston had landed in Santa Monica for a spell, and Miller decided he’d pop over and introduce himself. Weston welcomed him, and over time Miller became friends with his son, Brett, “A very fine photographer,” says Miller. “I think he’s even better than Ansel [Adams] or his father. He became my closest friend.”
The two worked together at North American Aviation, which was just south of the airport. At the time Miller lived in Hollywoodland, and since it was wartime there was gas rationing. Both he and Weston had a generous budget for their commutes, which got them brainstorming.
“Between us we had enough extra coupons, and we could drive out to the Valley and do some photography,” recalls Miller. “Mainly landscapes and abstractions. Brett did a lot of rather close-up work, not big landscapes but fine detail. Being around him, I got interested in that kind of photography.”
“I sort of think of Dick and Brett as yin and yang,” Madow says. “Brett is known for being a pictorialist, and these close-up textures . . . geometrics, and was this mover and shaker. And Dick, well, he found that people were more his thing, the portraits of women, babies -- people in front of the camera -- and then went home to his family, to his secluded lifestyle. He wasn’t going out looking for people to publish a book about his work.”
Miller’s first big break, in 1941, was something he did on a lark. He sent a Carbro print of his daughter, Linda, sitting at a table at Thanksgiving, hands folded saying grace but eyes focused on the turkey, to the Saturday Evening Post. Though the image was certainly in the realm of Norman Rockwell’s playful Americana, it was a long shot: “They did mainly paintings on the cover,” he recalls, “but it ended up being the first thing I sold. When I told a couple of photographers in town, friends of mine, they thought I was an awful liar. But when it came out my credit was there.” It wasn’t only a big score for Miller but for photography itself, which was still not fully accepted as an art form. All the while he experimented with color printing, mastering the Carbro process. “I knew that dyes would fade, and these Carbros, they are pretty light fast. Hard to get any dyes that won’t fade under bright light.” Much of his bread-and-butter work, however, from the ‘40s well into the late ‘50s was documenting Hollywood. To see these images tells a very different story about the relationship between photographer and subject than we know today: a relaxed and youthful Elizabeth Taylor taking a break between scenes, a contemplative James Dean in his motel room and an elated peaches-and-cream Norma Jeane.
“I invited her to have dinner with my family, and to this day I remember her description at dinner of what she wanted” in her career, says Miller. “And every bit of the thing that she wanted she achieved. And, of course, it killed her.”
The photographs are as much a nostalgic glance backward as they are as a commentary on the changing culture of celebrity. “When I was working, people were my friends who wanted me there. . . . I wasn’t barging in. I was invited in,” says Miller.
In this moment, Miller sits at the center of the whirlwind, glowing more vibrant than any of his signature work -- Carbro prints or a movie star’s smile set before him: “I never felt like I was working at photography. Because it was something that I liked to do. The work for me was play."--