Photographer captured an evolving L.A.

October 16, 2010|Valerie J. Nelson|Los Angeles Times

As photographer Richard C. Miller documented the construction of the four-level freeway interchange in mid-20th century downtown Los Angeles, he was overwhelmed by its man-made beauty.

“I saw it and just went out of my mind,” he later wrote. “I thought, ‘My God, this is how people must have felt when they first saw the cathedrals in Europe.'”


Miller forged a career in the 1940s and 1950s photographing celebrities. But the images Miller took for his own pleasure, especially of the unfolding of the Hollywood Freeway, showcase an independent vision, said Craig Krull, whose Santa Monica gallery this year staged a show of Miller’s work.

Miller died Friday of complications from pneumonia at a hospital in Rhinebeck, N.Y., where he had moved from Calabasas to live with a daughter, said Michael Andrews, a family friend. He was 98.

“He was way ahead of his time,” said Krull. “When he photographed the Hollywood Freeway, nobody at that time was thinking about photographing a project like that for artistic purposes.”

The Santa Monica exhibit reflected Miller’s work for magazines and his celebrity portraits, which included a young model later known as Marilyn Monroe posing as a bride and James Dean on the set of the 1956 movie “Giant.” Dean and the photographer bonded over mutual ownership of Porsches, Miller later said.

There were also images of an evolving Los Angeles, “‘snapshots’ of a city coming into its own,” The Times said earlier this year, as well as Miller’s signature prints made with the Carbro process, a complex and now-arcane color-printing technique that produces vibrant archival-quality prints from pigments rather than dye.

One of his more famous Carbro prints features his eldest daughter, Linda, peeking up at the Thanksgiving turkey during grace. It made the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1941, giving Miller his first big break.

It was the Post’s first photographic cover that captured the kind of everyday scene made famous by artist Norman Rockwell, said Paul Martineau, assistant curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Miller may have been the last surviving photographer to have used the Carbro printing method, which was out of vogue by the late 1940s, Martineau said.

Miller was considered a Carbro master, and a selection of his prints were included in a Getty exhibit last year on Paul Outerbridge, a pioneer of color photography.

Never one for self-promotion, Miller rarely exhibited his work. Three books featuring his photographs were first printed in 2009, the year he turned 97.


Richard Crump Miller was born Aug. 6, 1912, in Hanford, Calif., in the San Joaquin Valley and moved to Los Angeles with his family in the 1920s.

As a child, he was fascinated by his minister father’s folding camera.

By age 10, he had his own camera and as a teenager built a darkroom at his parent’s home.

He attended Stanford University, Pomona College and graduated from USC, where he met his future wife, Margaret.

While appearing in a play at the Pasadena Community Playhouse, he borrowed a Leica and made portraits of the other actors.

He was in New York pursuing acting when he shared his photographs with Edward Steichen, a leading commercial photographer who encouraged Miller to turn his pastime into a career.

During World War II, Miller worked for the photo department at North American Aviation and became close friends with another employee — Brett Weston, who became known for his photographs of landscapes and nature.

From 1955 to 1962, Miller freelanced for Globe Photos, shooting dozens of big-name stars as he covered more than 70 films on location, including “Some Like It Hot” with Monroe.

After daughter Linda died of cancer at 24 in 1962, Miller “sort of withdrew from the world,” Andrews said, and went into near-seclusion at the home he built on five acres in Calabasas.

Although he was shy, Miller was known for his warmth and eagerness to share his knowledge. A younger generation of photographers have worked to bring Miller recognition.

“He was like 007 with a gun over his shoulder,” Andrews told The Times earlier this year. “The camera went everywhere. He must have climbed to the top of buildings, hiked up hills to get some of these perspectives. And from these you see, he clearly loved Los Angeles so much.”

Miller’s wife died in 2006 at age 92. He is survived by two daughters, Janice and Margaret; a sister, Nancy Jane Stratford; and two grandsons.


Dick Died Today

October 15, 2010

By Michael Andrews

At 1:25 in the morning the phone rings and the first thing to cross my mind is this can’t be good. Then I think something has gone wrong with Mom. Flo picks it up and I hear her say it’s Jamie. Then I think what the hell is Jamie calling for, something happened to John or Tricia or Tiffy or Robynn. “Hello,” I squawk, and it is Jani. Flo said Jani and I heard Jamie. It was the call I expected and never wanted to get.

Jani sounds a bit teary although we all could see it coming. Even after they started the farewell morphine drip none of us could really imagine a world without Dick. After all, he had always been there throughout our whole lives and before and now, suddenly, at 1:25 in the morning the world has another empty space torn into it.

The only thing that fills the empty spaces torn in the world by the absence of those we love is ignorance, that kind of special forgetfulness that dies with us, that disappears with those who can remember.

History is no favor to a ripped and torn world.

Richard C. Miller ruined my life.

One day Dick lifted his eyes from under his ever ubiquitous jeweler’s goggles and said, “You’re an artist.”

And I believed him.

Although I would not have had my life any other way, it did not sound like the curse of the mummies at the time – but it was.

The life of the artist is not a happy one, even though it is satisfying, and as it has been famously said, the artist does live his life at least twice. I was living the life of the perfectly self-satisfied idiot when I dragged Flo to Vietnam and got the education of a lifetime. One day we left the Nam for an R&R in the land of the free and the brave and Flo dragged me to Calabasas, which was the first time I met Dick. He was a spring chicken then, around 56 years-old, younger than I am today – by far. We bonded on the spot, but then it has always been easy for people to bond with Dick – he is just that lovable. By the time he turned 98 he was even more lovable. I am 65 and even less lovable.

At that time I had newly acquired a Rollie SL-66 in Hong Kong and knew I could not carry it around the world with me, so I left it in Dick’s care. I am a trusting soul, and Dick is a soul to be trusted. And so began our lifelong friendship. Just seven years earlier Dick and his wife Margaret had lived through the nightmare of losing their eldest daughter to a chronic renal condition.

It was, naturally, a living hell on earth to lose a daughter who had just been married bubbling over with all the plans that we now know don’t mean spit anyway but puts a sparkle in the eyes of the young and 24 ain’t even old enough to vote.

It was around that time that Dick became more of a recluse vand over the years travels from his home in Calabasas became shorter and less frequent.

I never did talk him into spending time in the Sierras with me, knowing he would blow small fortunes on film and processing, but the Rollie did inspire him to return to photography and he loaned it in turn to Brett Weston.

Brett was his best friend since 1941 when they worked together with Peter Gowland at North American keeping the world safe from democracy. Brett had lately been bitten by a Brown Recluse spider and was having difficulty lugging around his 8×10 view camera. The Rollie was lighter and a smaller film format.

He later returned my Rollie to Dick and got his own, which later still he gave to Dick
who in turn willed it to my friend Reece Vogel. Reece carries it around to this day and rubs it in the digital noses of those of us who have been dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age.

Dick was born in Hanford, just west of Fresno, one year after Brett, in 1912. His father was a preacher of some Christian persuasion or other and for a time they moved to New Jersey
then back to Fresno, and finally to Los Angeles where they built a home on Serrano just off Wilshire and Western which provided Dick with some his early urban landscapes.
His father built the big church on Wilshire Blvd. From there Dick began his life-long love affair with the city.

He went to a military school, then to a public high school and on to Stanford where he was the lightweight boxing champion of his day. Having lost his shot at the Olympics thanks to the misguided but well intentioned incompetence of a coach and the U.S. mail, he went to USC where he met Dudsie and fell in love.

He went to New York in the late 1920’s to pursue his acting and photography career, hung out with Steichen and shot pictures, but when it looked as if Dudsie, a girl of independent mind,
was going to move on to a more reliable life than that of the artist’s moll, he hustled back to Los Angeles and flung himself at her feet. Dudsie had mercy on him and they remained married until her death in 2006. She laid in a coma on their bed in the bedroom they had built while Dick watched the sunset over the Western range in Calabasas.

Old men see so much death it is almost a long lost friend.

In the late thirties Dick went to Santa Monica canyon, looked up Edward Weston and bought the few pictures he liked and could afford.

He and Dudsie set up shop and suffered the standard economic atrocities of the artistic life
until the World War, the Second by that name, grabbed Dick by the throat and he had the choice of dying early in the pursuit of the conquest of some island sand or of supporting his newly created family by going to work for the Man at North American Aviation.

The three photographers terrorized the local females until Brett got drafted, Peter got married and Dick went to work for Dr. Bela Gaspar, where he was exempt from invading Iwo Jima and was the official printer and tester of Gasparcolor, which later became Cibachrome, which later became history just like the rest of us dinosaurs.

Along the way Dick took pictures of everything that got in front of his camera, in any possible format he could afford or would contribute to the commercial survival of his family – He shot B&W, color, printed on silver gelatin, learned to make carbro prints from his own three-color one-shot camera, printed dye-bleach, dye-transfer, dye-couplers and sold images to Saturday Evening Post and Life, and in general shot anything he could to support his now burgeoning family of three daughters.

Brett said, “I don’t take shots. I make photographs.”

They were friends, after all.

He shot models like Norma Jeane Daugherty, was sent to cover Jimmy Dean on Giant and took the time to take pictures that were hopeless economic losses. These were the pictures that we call art and had no commercial value and no market presence – the model smoking a cigarette or the 4×5 B&W’s of the construction of the Hollywood freeway as it paved it’s way over the Cahuenga Pass. He took them because his passion as a photographer left him no choice. He also shot his family, often when it was thought to be intrusive; his dying daughter, his mother on her death bed, funerals, births and other rites of passage.

He later said he took pictures in order to understand life, to metabolize the agony of existence.

We reckon he shot tens of thousands of images before his shutter finger got tired
and his natural bent toward being a hermit exhausted his interest.
After Dudsie died Dick’s health took a left turn for the inevitable and some of us came to be in charge of his legacy.

In 2007 he moved with his daughter Jani to the Hudson Valley, which he never fails to point out is not his beloved Los Angeles. Peggy, his other daughter, lives and teaches in Virginia. Together they suffer the depredations of my pay-back, letting the world know about an artist that got overlooked for 80 years. He traveled west for his exhibit at the Getty in 2009 and again for his exhibit at the Craig Krull Gallery in 2010. Reece and Flo and I pick him up in my 1990 Chevrolet van, scoot his electronic wheelchair up the ramp, vdeposit him and his daughters at the Embassy Suites and the next day sashay him and his sister, Aunt Nan, around town, to the archive in the film vault, lunch at Lucy’s El Adobe and off to the reception.

Dick was lucky in his women, lucky in his life, lucky that when the doo-doo hit the fan that he had two daughters to care for him, lucky we were around to manage his legacy, lucky we fell into the exhibit at the Getty, lucky to have found Robert Adams, Tony Hernandes and Judith Freeman, lucky we ended up at Craig Krull’s, lucky some artist had to postpone his exhibit giving Dick this well deserved one-man show.

Recently a wealthy collector walked into Craig’s gallery, saw the picture on the invitation for Dick’s show and said, “That’s my mother.” Imagine the odds.

That’s the luck of the Dick.

There was no way this side of hell I was going to let the man who ruined my life die without knowing his life was worth living and his art worth each and every click of the shutter. We have done our best to drag him, kicking and screaming, from his hill in Calabasas into the artistic limelight.

Brett would have been proud or maybe astonished and no doubt a bit skeptical. Edward would have traded prints. Dudsie would have been pleased to boss the whole affair and Linda would have clapped for joy. Norma Jeane and Jimmy Dean would raise a plastic glass of white wine to toast his success. Jani and Peggy will be there, of course, to remind us of the ghosts who hover over our lives.

The LA Times agrees to do the obituary, as does AP and today we sell one of his prints of his old buddy James Dean.

The luck of the Dick. Or maybe Dick just waving so-long.

Thank you, Dick, for your life and your art. Los Angeles, the world of art and me owes you something for 80 years of hard work – and for ruining my life.

But then, I wouldn’t have it any other way.