New York-based Greg Miller is a Guggenheim Fellow who studied photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. His photographic projects range from schoolchildren waiting for the morning bus to county fairs to the Catholic rites of Ash Wednesday. His work has been exhibited in solo shows from Los Angeles and Nashville to Barcelona, Spain, and appears regularly in publications like Time and Life. Since 1999, Miller has been a faculty member at the International Center of Photography in New York City.
Miller’s photographs in Southbound, all from his Nashville series, reflect his attempts to recover once-upon-a-time senses of place that turn out, in the end, to be ephemeral. Having relocated from Nashville to New York in his late teens, he returned decades later to explore and rediscover a city where he had lived in a series of homes and neighborhoods, because of his family’s multiple moves while living there. His anticipated connections to those places turned out to be more imagined than real and the images he made in this new-to-him Nashville express a certain in-betweenness, at once familiar yet strange.
These are photographs that have us asking questions. In Deaderick Street (2008), we wonder what transpired to make the child beauty queen outside the stage-door entrance—whose diamond choker and tracksuit are as jarring together as her elaborately styled curls and flip-flops—purse her lips so tightly. Whatever happened has also caused her mother’s mouth to turn down as she regards her offspring with, it seems, some combination of disappointment and bemusement. In another image, titled Hillsboro Pike (2008), is the African American pastor walking toward the sanctuary door bending forward because of the weight of the wheelie he’s toting up the hill, or is he under some heavier burden? Or, do his black suit and equally black Chevrolet SUV predispose us to somber readings?
In a Hopper-esque image titled 21st Avenue South (2008), we find ourselves wondering what’s going through the mind of the elderly woman looking through the plate-glass window of Peabody’s shoe repair shop as two young lovers seem to struggle to reconcile. Is the spectator whose mouth hangs open aghast, or filled with empty longing? In another scene, titled Richard Jones Road (2008), the apparent rage contorting the face of a bare-chested, muscle-bound, and heavily scarred young man may not be rage after all, for his hands aren’t quite clenched. He, too, is staring through a window at what may be a couple at odds. The scene is pregnant with foreboding; the woman’s thousand-yard stare denotes a sadness that does nothing to disarm the contempt a second man radiates toward her from across the patio.
That these images represent the re-creation of the photographer’s childhood memories only layers more discomfiture into Miller’s photographs. We are left puzzling over the love of a father so blinding that the man would lie on the ground in a parking lot to play airplane with his infant, oblivious to any danger, even as people say their goodbyes near the hulking vehicles parked in the background, in a photograph titled Arno Road (2008).
Echoed in the work of fellow Southbound artists McNair Evans, Susan Worsham, and Kathleen Robbins is Miller’s focus on home, in particular his efforts to re-create places now lost. His images resonate, in part, because of the universal impulse to use photographs as conduits to the past.