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Photography
Harry Miller's Vision of Arkansas  
By Harry Miller
37 photographs. 72 pp.
The Old Independence Regional Museum. US$?
ISBN-10: 0874837197 | ISBN-13: 9780874837193

Belonging to an America long past, the photographs in Harry Miller’s Vision of Arkansas, 1900-1910 does more than remind us that the past is different from today. It provides a contemplative view of a particular time and place. Harry Miller had a brief productive period in the first decade of the twentieth century but then abandoned a promising career. Working with equipment that can only be described as primitive when compared with today’s technology, Harry Miller deliberately broke away from the conventions of the early twentieth century to show us the height of photographic excellence a century ago. Accompanied by three narratives that discuss Miller’s life and art, this book provides an opportunity to see how a bygone era appeared through the technology available at the time.

Miller’s landscapes are ambient even in their stillness, so that we sense the motion of the moment when the picture was taken. For example, the picture titled, “Black boy, smiling” (Figure 21), shows a child whose feet are still, but whose upper body seems to lean slightly forward, poised to take flight. The child’s ragged clothing is nonetheless warm, and the background against which he stands is luminous. Miller ignored the racial mores of his time to place the child in the middle of a formal composition against flowers with no acknowledgment of why that might be shocking in the early twentieth century. In fact, 23 of the Miller photos displayed in the book include African American subjects; Miller’s non-condescending attitude is remarkable for his time.

A series of pictures taken in Cushman’s Cave displays Miller’s precocity when playing with the contrast between light and dark, especially given the complicated, cumbersome equipment of the day. There were “some fifty available brands at the time,” and Miller clearly used some of the best. He was able to develop pictures that “included the hard-to-get ‘half-tones,’ grays between black and white, which reproduced details like clouds.”

Readers will especially appreciate the narrative of Miller’s grandniece, Marilyn Brewer, who humanizes Miller for us. His wife, Birdie, had a female “lifetime companion,” and Miller became an alcoholic in later life. Editor Jo Blatti of the Old Independence Regional Museum in Batesville, Arkansas and Rita Henry have also contributed comments and insight about Miller’s artistry and technique. The exhibit catalogued by Harry Miller: Visions of Arkansas, 1900-1910 came about as the result of a sustained effort spurred by Brewer and perfected by careful attention to detail from all contributors. People interested in Arkansas history, early photography, or the rediscovery of a fascinating artist will be happy to add Harry Miller: Visions of Arkansas, 1900-1910 to their collections.

Elizabeth Breau, for Notable Book Reviews
Notable Book Reviews received one or more copies of this book in exchange for this review.
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