Maren Miller interviews Doug Miller about his photographs in “America’s Jugular: The Upper Ohio Valley”
M: How long have you been photographing Ohio?
D: I’ve been photographing the Ohio Valley since around 1970. That’s when I was still in High School. I was interested in photography because I was interested in filmmaking. And I couldn’t afford filmmaking, but I could afford to do photography. So I set up a darkroom in the basement.
I started using my dad’s camera. My dad had a decent camera. Nothing fancy, but you could make adjustments, which is what you need to start really doing photography. So I bought an enlarger and I basically taught myself. I had nobody to teach me, unfortunately, so it took me a long time because I had to learn through trial and error. I had these little pamphlets from Kodak and that was about it.
So much of learning photography is learning what a photograph does. You know, what’s a photograph look like. And so when you push that shutter on a still camera hopefully you’re already imagining the print. The print is in your head. In black and white that’s even more of a challenge because black and white is not a natural thing. We don’t see in black and white. So you have to train yourself to see.
M: Which photographers were you aware of when you started?
D: Well, photography was much more important then than it it is today. There was Life Magazine, Look Magazine. Photojournalism was how you saw things. You might see something on the TV news but you were mostly going to see it in the newspaper and in magazines.
M: So there was no real differentiation between photography as an art form as photojournalism.
D: No. There wasn’t much difference. But Cartier Bresson really opened my eyes. He could photograph any subject and come away with a memorable picture. He let me see that there were all kinds of possibilities even in the most mundane things – a church service in a basement or people coming in and out of the local shopping mall. I don’t know if that would’ve occurred to me without him. You start seeing pictures everywhere. And you start shooting all kinds of things.
That was another thing with Cartier Bresson, now that I think about it – he was very interested in people. I was always intersted in people – how they looked, how they moved, how they did things.
In the past, it was all Photography. Now people talk about whether they do set-up, or studio, or what I do which is now called straight photography.
I’m trying to manipulate less. But you always have to do a little. It’s a question of degree. Like changing it to black and white – you’ve obviously manipulated it.
But I am interested in straight photography and I do think it makes for more powerful pictures. I find when you’re setting the thing up, when you’re talking to the subject, when you’re organizing the picture, you get your own vision fed back to you.
M: Does the fact that you are from the Ohio Valley affect how you photograph?
D: I do photograph it differently from someone who parachutes in. When I was growing up it was very prosperous. So my photography has come to be about how that area has changed. I didn’t set out to do that. But as I’ve observed it, as so many of the jobs have left and the area’s been run down and lost population and struggled so much that obviously effects the pictures.
M: And what happened? What do people not understand about the Ohio Valley?
D: The Ohio valley is a victim of American free trade. It was an area of Union jobs and heavy industry. Shipping those jobs overseas has undermined the economy of the whole region. They were the breadwinners, these union steel workers, the coal miners. They were the economic engine. Whether you were a shoe salesman or a school teacher, everything depended on them. You take that all away and suddenly all you’ve got left is a bunch of extra housing. Not only did people lose their jobs but the whole area was devalued. Suddenly their homes weren’t worth anything either. Who wants to move there?
It’s been a slow slow death. Now the area has lost a lot of population. People have moved out, there are abandoned buildings, there are abandoned factories, and they’re just trying to hang on, wondering what to do next. They don’t quite know what’s happened to them. They’ve been pushing fracking, that’s supposedly going to provide a bunch of jobs. But I haven’t seen it. I mean fracking is happening, this is the excuse to do it, but I don’t see that it’s providing many jobs. Certainly not enough to make up for the jobs lost with the steel mills.
So I don’t have an answer — I don’t know where it’s going, I don’t know what’s going to happen next. With these workers. Some still have jobs but they’re non-union jobs, so they pay poorly and they don’t have hardly any benefits.
M: When did the jobs start getting sent overseas?
D: Well it started in the 60s. But it was on a small scale at first. You would hear about one factory closing, and then another, and then another. It happened so slowly that it made it hard to react.
M: What do you think has made the region into “Trump Country” if it was conservative leaders, Republicans, who championed “free trade” and sent those jobs overseas?
D: Well Trump is sort of a unique case. He’s been anti free-trade. He’s unusual, he’s not a regular Republican. Republican ideals were based in free trade and chasing the cheapest product without regard to who the workers were. And now Trump has at least voiced being against that. And that’s part of the reason he’s popular.
M: Before Trump, though, wasn’t it a pretty conservative area?
D: Yes. Socially conservative. But you know, the Union guys always voted Democrat. Religiously. But now that people are paid less and in more desperate straights they’ve turned Republican. And also this feeling that somehow they’re being ripped off by other groups, other minorities. There’s a pervasive thought that the government is more interested in immigrants than it is in Ohio Valley residents. That’s an incorrect assumption but it is common.
They feel that the only time anybody is concerned about them is during the election, and then afterwards they are forgotten again. They don’t have any political power. They don’t have a spokesman speaking up for them. And so they feel abandoned by the government and by the country.
But Ohio’s a funny state. It has an interesting split. It’s split right down the middle meaning in many ways it’s very conservative — it went for Trump. But at the same time, they just reelected Sherrod Brown and he’s a very liberal senator. He was elected statewide and he’s popular.
M: Do you feel photography has a social significance? That it can have political power?
D: Well photography is just one of many tools. It doesn’t have power in itself. It’s very unusual for photographs to make a big change, but they can contribute. Photographs can show people about other people. It’s a teaching tool as well as a tool of visual enjoyment.
It’s an area I know that other people don’t know. And of course there are other people who know it better than me, but you know, I’m the one with the camera.
M: Have you ever counted how many photographs you have all together in your Ohio Valley collection?
D: No. But it must be tens of thousands.
M: How do you construct your essay projects? How do you pick the subjects?
D: Well I do different projects for different reasons. I enjoy working on projects that take time. You see it change, you see something happen. I like to go back. Like going to cemeteries. When I walk through a cemetery gate I don’t know what I’m going to find. I’m looking for something that’s visually interesting and unusual. Something someone else wouldn’t see. That’s something I often do with my Ohio valley pictures. I don’t believe another person would take pictures like mine, necessarily.
Plus with those pictures — that’s a black and white essay. I really like the aesthetic of black and white. I love determining how many grays and figuring out how to make an interesting picture. Because it’s certainly harder, in my experience, to make an interesting black and white print than a color one.
M: Do you ever photograph the Ohio valley in color?
D: Definitely. I’ve done a lot of photography of the Ohio valley in color. And those are a different kind of picture. They’re more nature oriented.
I like the black and white in the way it focuses you. As they say, color photography can show you everything about color. But black and white is about everything else. So when I’m working in color I’m looking for a different thing.
M: It’s about the color.
D: Yes, it’s about the color, usually. Though there are crossovers.
M: But the point when you’re photographing people is the face, the context, the unity of the picture rather than one specific aspect.
D: My pictures, you’ll notice, are seldom just the person. It’s the setting. It’s their light. The person in their context, not isolated. It’s hard to do. And you lose a lot of pictures, because you don’t want to bother people. You have to be careful if you’re invading people’s space, private space. But…you know sometimes we do it.
When you’re doing “straight “photography you trust in the image itself. That’s what I like about photography. That’s what makes it different from painting and sculpture and other arts is that it shares certain visual techniques but it’s also formed by the reality in front of you. And I don’t go and alter that reality. I don’t move a building or paint a road or have somebody pose a certain way. I’m interested in looking at what’s given to me, what’s in front of me and then trying to make that into a statement. A visual statement that can stand on its own and be interesting. Using that term again…
M: You keep explaining what an interesting picture is by telling me it’s an interesting picture.
D: Well, I can’t tell you any more than that. Except that it’s a picture where everything happens. The subject works and the visuals work, both. They’re in conjunction and they give you some kind of revelation or idea . When you look at it you want to look at it just a little bit more than you might look at another image.
In my pictures, the more you look the more you see.