In Honor of Veterans Day

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A Biography of a Photographer

(A Brief Look at His Life, Work and Philosophy) – Bill Miller, 1982

General Eisenhower said, “Where is General Patton? It wouldn’t be right to have our pictures taken without General Patton.” Standing on the large steps leading into a beautiful Belgian chateau, he was surrounded by a dozen generals of the army and the air force, two- or three-star in rank. Truly an awesome group to behold. Grouped tightly together on a bright October day in 1944, these were the leaders of the U.S. forces in Europe. The young signal corps motion picture photographer, standing twenty-five feet away, had wondered why, just the day before, he had been called back from his assignment with an infantry division in Germany. He had been told to shave, doff his dirty clothes, shine his shoes, and generally make himself presentable for a secret assignment. Now he knew why two news service still cameramen had joined him, along with another signal corps movie cameraman. It was to picture this group which had gathered for some unknown purpose.

He quickly began his footage of the group as the high ranking military men chatted informally. As luck would have it, his colleague’s camera jammed and now he remained the sole motion picture man on the scene. Until today he had been assigned to photograph combat action. Combat action had been defined by the First Army photographic officer as footage of riflemen and 60mm mortar crews, not artillery and the fartherback 80mm crews. He had carried his heavy 35mm Bell and Howell camera through Normandy and into Germany. The camera had been his constant companion day and night until he felt it to be a part of him. Suddenly a figure appeared in the doorway of the chateau. It was King George of England! The monarch proceeded to award the “Knight Commander of the Bath” medal to General Omar Bradley, who had led the forces of the First Army in the invasion of Europe. The only motion pictures of D Day landings were made by one of the young photographer’s company mates. The young photographer ran out of film, quickly reloaded in seconds, and proceeded to make closeup photographs of the King and General Eisenhower as they reviewed an honor guard. Suddenly it was over and the photographer joined his comrade who expressed his admiration for the young cameraman’s calmness and apparent lack of tension in a situation which would have caused many tremors in earlier years.

Why shouldn’t he be at ease? Admittedly not a placid person, his perspective had changed as he had seen and faced death on a daily basis. A man must adapt a fatalistic attitude during war if he is to retain his sanity. Furthermore, the photographer had confidence in his ability to do the job correctly. Months ago he was being trained in the States by top news reel and Hollywood cameramen. He, along with his company mates, many of whom were Hollywood cameramen and news photographers, were given a simple and identical assignment. The next day as they viewed their efforts on a full-sized theater screen, soldier after soldier was severely criticized for poor choice of angle, composition, etc. The young photographer’s work finally came on the screen. There was dead silence. The instructors looked at one another silently. Then with his heart beating rapidly as he awaited the certain verbal onslaught, the young photographer heard his teachers, one by one, say, “I don’t see anything wrong with it.” The young soldier then knew for the first time that the Lord had given him the gift of an instinctive feel for composition.

His movies of that historic day in Belgium were to appear on the screens across America and the world, just as the efforts of the still photographers were to appear in Life and other publications. The young photographer was a part of history that day, just as he had been one day just prior to D Day. Again, he was the sole motion picture man accompanying General Eisenhower and Prime Minister Churchill from dawn to dusk as they inspected troops to ascertain their preparedness for the invasion of Europe. Now, he had the recording of much action in Normandy and Germany behind him. Little did he know he would touch history again and again. He was one of the first Americans to stand in the famous Cologne Cathedral, which had miraculously escaped. major injury, and which stood proudly, surrounded by masses of rubble. He was to be with the 83rd Infantry division as it cut through toward Bastogne in the miserable, cold, “Batt1e of the Bu1ge.” His movies of the horrors of the Nordhausen concentration camp were used in the famous Nuremberg trials. Hitler’s cohort, Reich Marshall Goering, became ill as he watched. At the end of the European war the photographer greeted the Russians across the E1be River and quickly learned that they were not allies, but future enemies. Yes, he was a part of history those army days, just as were the other members of that small company of signal corps photographers who covered the activities of the U.S. First Army from D Day to the link up with the Russians. After the war, Time magazine gave this small company credit for much of the coverage of the European war.

The young photographer was not always a soldier. Born in 1912, and named William Stonewall Miller by parents whose parents before them were physicians as was his father at the time, Billy was a shy, sensitive boy. He worshiped his mother. However, he was somewhat in awe of his large, dynamic, surgeon father who had captained his college football team. Billy was a good student and strove to achieve whatever he attempted. He played on a grade school football team in Kansas City which was the first such group other than one organized by a private school. His father was the coach, and Billy probably was most instrumental in organizing it. He grew up with two younger brothers who were close in age. He was expected to lead the way for them which was a difficult task as they were exceptional scholars and athletes. Bill was a leader in scouting and an honor student in high school, being a member of the National Honor Society. He also played football and basketball.

Then it was onward to the University of Missouri where Bill again lettered in football, was an honor student and president of the largest and oldest fraternity on the campus. His courses were science oriented. It was more or less expected that he go into medicine, so after graduating from M.U., Harvard Medical School claimed him. At first he was happy and led his class in grades. Then in his second year, it became apparent that his middle name was a misnomer. He was no Stonewall. He realized he was not meant to be a doctor. Sickness depressed him. He departed, still in the top 10% of his class.

Unsure of himself and unhappy, he went home to loving parents who couldn’t understand the why of his departure. He sought the therapy of hard, sixty hour per week, physical labor, perhaps thinking the moving of tons of heavy sacks would cause his uncertainties to sweat away. These were the depression days of the thirties and he saw men standing in line hoping for his 30¢ per hour job. Bill learned to live and work with, and appreciate men of lesser means and education. He enjoyed the companionship of these men who were so remote from his Harvard and Missouri classmates. He reviled no man and this sensitivity was to serve him well during his photographic career. It was easy for him to find some good in everyone.

Those were aimless years until one day he purchased a two dollar developing and printing outfit complete with candle 1ighted safelight and paraffin covered trays. Undoubtedly, because of his science background, developing and printing appealed to him; but soon it became more than that – it was taking photographs. He and his friend, David Douglas Duncan (later to become one of the world’s greatest photographers), spent hours together in the darkroom as they attempted to hone their skills. One day in 1939, when he was visiting a favorite aunt in Pittsburg, Kansas, she suggested that he move there and start a studio and camera shop. She even suggested a location. He checked on the brand new 17′ x 65′ brick building adjacent to the local college, and found the rent to be only $17.50 per month!

It was certainly past time to drop the aimless life. Armed with $500 he had saved and the help of a partner (short lived), he started his new business. He did the wiring and plumbing and much of the carpentry. He made his first enlarger, even constructing the bellows. He had no photographic training, but he avidly read anything he could get his hands on pertaining to photography. He studied the lighting in the movie magazines which were usually spotlight photographs. He constructed two boom spotlights using used pipe and two $10 spotlights, which incidentally, had a fall off quality he could never duplicate with more expensive lights. Those spotlights served him well for 30 years. His first year in business he netted $30 per month! And 1ived on it! His spotlight pictures looked “different” than the beautiful skylight and large light source pictures of the day. The students at the adjacent college gave them quick acceptance. Gradually his business grew.

Now it is 1942 and the United States was at war and Bill is a private in the signal corps and beginning his career of army photography, finally receiving a commission in the field. Then it was 1945, and 1st Lieutenant Miller was back in the States and a new and a most important part of his life was to begin. He met a South Carolina girl on V.J. Day (the end of the Japanese War) and they were soon married. He was 33 and she was a lovely 22. Dotty was then and is now the most important thing in his 1ife. She was to give him the companionship and strength he was to receive and savor and enjoy through the years. The busy mother of their four children, she always seemed to have time to listen, encourage him and offer sage advice.

It is back to Pittsburg, Kansas, and after a year or two there was a new, larger downtown studio and camera shop. The years were filled with thousands of photographs, both portrait and commercial. His studio was a rather large operation with several receptionists, hundreds of wedding and thousands of student photographs. Along the way great photographers like Laurence Blaker, Paul Gittings, Wes Carolan, Don Peterson, Gerhard Bakker, Bill Stockwell (he attended Stockwell’s first class), Mills Steele, and many more were to stimulate and mold this man’s photographic life. He served as president of the Kansas Association where he was named “Photographer of the Year” several times. He was given the National Award and a life membership in the association. He received his Master of Photography, Cr. degree and taught a year of commercial photography at Winona. In his hometown of 20,000 he served on many civic committees and thirteen years on the zoning board. At this writing, he has served sixteen years as a director of what is now a successful (and solvent) ninety million dollar savings and loan association. Twice he served as president of the local country club.

Then it happened. On Friday, March 13, 1970, his beautiful studio burned to the ground. With it went several hundred thousand negatives, and most of his eighteen loan collection negatives. For forty-eight hours he was completely at loss. In 1964, he had started working in color and in 1968, he had built a fine 4000 square feet, somewhat automated color lab. Therefore, he decided to rebuild his studio, attaching it to his new lab. It was a struggle trying to operate a studio and lab. He was desperately in need of help. Then his only son who had never expressed any interest in photography, in order to help, joined him in 1971, and proceeded to lead the way in what is today the most highly computerized custom lab in America with over 100 people working in 25,000 clean square feet of space.

Those were busy, challenging and satisfying years with father and son working closely together. As the lab business grew, Bill dropped his studio duties and it wasn’t until 1978 that he started to exhibit again; his prints coming from negatives made on vacation trips. On those trips he was completely absorbed in photography. Released from the daily chores in the lab, he realized that he could spend practically every waking hour pointing his Hasselblad at God’s wonders. It was nothing to spend an hour at the ocean’s edge, attempting to convey the restlessness and power of the sea. He is still trying to make just one photograph in which one can “hear the water.”

In addition to the work of many photographers, through the years he had been stimulated by the works of Rembrandt and the photographs of Edward Weston, Cartier Bresson and others. He greatly appreciated Cartier Bresson’s work, but realized that his own genes directed him differently. Rembrandt’s 1ife and work were intensely interesting to him.

Gradually Bill realized he preferred the strength and interest of side and back lighting. In making commercial photographs of large machinery, he tried to avoid the often uninteresting and non directional available light and instead used tungsten lighting to give his subjects a feeling of isolation and separation from distracting backgrounds. He has never considered himself particularly creative. After all, he had come to observe that many so called creative people were in reality masters of imitation. Probably the nearest he had shown creativity in his photographs was his “different” approach in lighting large machinery. He was humble enough to realize others were perhaps doing the same thing. As he became more interested in scenic photography, he realized that the Edward Weston, Ansel Adams approach appealed to him more than Eliot Porter’s. In addition to a sense of composition, another of God’s gifts to him was an acute awareness of his environment. Instead of straining to find something abstract in nature, he gradually realized that certain things in nature instantly appealed to him. A simple scene might appeal to him emotionally and he tried to capture that feeling on film. He often saw things in photographs he had made that others failed to perceive and often he realized he had failed to capture that feeling. But he made no apologies for this direct approach. Good or bad, he “felt” his photographs and sometimes others joined him. One day when he was judging a college photographic contest, one of the other judges made a disparaging remark about a beautiful interpretation of a scene. He said, “It looks like a postcard!” Quite frankly, the other judge was not able to defend his own contrived acceptance of poor “abstract” photography. Bill answered the other judge by saying, “I have seen a lot of great postcards.” And so, over a 1ifetime of trial and error and inward searching, the photographer knew the direction he would take. In his remaining years, his approach would be to photograph people, places and things which stimulated him with a graphic directness and hope others might feel attracted to his work.

It is late March, 1982, and Bill is enjoying a spring-in-the-air feeling as he pursues his daily three mile jog. Dawn has not as yet arrived. The air is soft, warm, and moist. Robins are hopping and blackbirds are starting their raucous exits from their nightly roosts. “It is good to be alive,” takes on a greater depth of meaning when one is just four months away from his three score and ten. These early morning jaunts are often accomplished, oblivious to the exercise, as he slips into deep thought. Today was no exception. He thought of all the things he had to be thankful for: Photography had turned him from an aimless path to one of purpose. It had led him to his wonderful wife. In retrospect, the burning of his studio with its walls filled with trophies and stacked with his best negatives was to turn out to be a blessing. It brought his son into the business to help and lead. He was thankful that his son’s business and photographic talents exceeded his own and proud that his son had already received his Master of Photography degree. Photography had also brought his son-in-law, with his engineering background, and for whom he had fondness and respect, into the business. Now his youngest daughter had joined the studio staff and was beginning to win awards. He was thankful for Dotty; for still putting up with his eccentricities. Three of their four children lived in Pittsburg and grandchildren (they have seven) were within a stones throw. He was thankful for the hundreds of customers serviced by the lab and proud that many of them considered him a friend. He was appreciative of the old fashioned values instilled in him by his parents which made it easy for him to put himself in his customer’s shoes. He was thankful for the great people who worked with him in the lab and in the studio. Several of them had spent much of their lives with him. He was grateful for health and the chance to be busy every hour with his work and his hobbies. His days were full. God had been good to him. As he neared the end of his run, the sun was rising. A new day was starting for William Stonewall Miller.

Thank you to the brave men and women who have served and protected our freedom.

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27 thoughts on “In Honor of Veterans Day

Millie says:

Thank you so much for sharing this excerpt! I really enjoyed the history and learning the background of Miller’s founder. It sure explains why the lab is so customer oriented. Awesome!

Johnie L. Cook Photographer CPP retired says:

What an interesting and infirmity history of a man I wish I could have known personally. It explains greatly why I chose to use Miller’s Lab and join countless others who claim it to be “the best”. While I am no longer active in my photographic lifestyle I still cherish the work Miller’s has done for me, and helped to make me a better photographer. My friend ship with the lab people I got to know thru the trade shows and my few visits to the lab in person just reassured my trust and faith in the “best lab in the country”. I really enjoyed reading about Bill’s military time and duties and being a vet myself makes me appreciate even more him and his story…..Kudos to all the people still continuing what Bill started…

Tom Carter says:

Fantastic! I did not know Bill’s history.

I was an Army Signal Corps photographer in Germany in 67-68.

Bill Barbosa says:

This was a great story, Thank you for sharing, Mr. Miller amazing life. I am proud to support Miller’s lab as my lab of choice and have used them for close to 20 years and will continue. Thank you, Mr. Miller, for making this a great company and supporting our industry.

Bill Barbosa

Bob Hurt says:

This is a wonderfully written story of a fine gentleman I had the pleasure of meeting and becoming one of his customers when my portrait studio was in Richardson, Texas.
His son and son-in law were also friends I think the world of.
Best regards and thanks for such a fine message.
Bob Hurt

Bob Hurt says:

Thank you,
Bob Hurt

iarmila says:

What a beautiful heart touching story. Thank you for sharing it.

Wow! This makes me very proud to be a Millers client since 1983! Back then I found out about Millers from, of all people, my rep from our professional lab in Seattle! Not just anyone could start an account so I sent a few 120 rolls for proofing in through his account. As I tested more I was amazed by what I found and got on the waiting list to be a Millers client.

I knew there was amazing innovation and leadership behind the talent that was uniquely serving the photographic industry. I had no idea of this rich background with Mr. Miller. I love this story and I am so happy you brought it to us all!

WoW! Just wow! I have been moved to tears. ? Thank you so much for sharing your story. Family and service are so, so important to me. Just another reason why Miller’s is my favorite lab.

What a wonderful biography – thanks so much for sharing this well – written story of an amazing man. I was particularly moved by the way William credited God for his gifts. I, too, know that my photographic skills are truly a God-given gift.

I am a happy customer of MIller’s lab and having never met any of the staff in person, this article gave me a feeling of connection to the company.

Thank you for sharing this wonderful and inspiring story!

Bob Foos says:

I always enjoy learning more about Bill Miller. Thanks for sharing.

Holly B says:

What a wonderful story for Veteran’s Day. We as customers and citizens can be thankful twice over for his service. He was born into one war, served in another and came back to build the prosperity of his country. I am so glad he had he courage to leave Harvard University and follow his passion. He lived in amazing times and rose to the occasion. How I would have loved to be with him to photograph those generals on the day before D Day. Thank you for sharing his story.

Chris Seid says:

Thank you for sharing this wonderful story!

Jeff Brown says:

Great story about Bill, I grew up in Pittsburg and used to peddle my bike down to his little store on Broadway to deliver our film to be developed and pick up our prints. Of course I always looked at the cameras and photos on the walls and dreamed of someday owning a good camera. I never knew about Bill’s military history and who would have guess the nice, polite store owner had such a background. I also remember when the store burned to the ground while I was in high school and they rebuilding out on Jefferson street, we lived on Monroe a few blocks from the plant. Each time I came back to visit Pittsburg the Miller’s plant had build more building getting even closer to my old home. One of Bill’s photographers and employees Bob Pallet rented one of our duplexes and he used to walk to work at the lab each day , on birthdays and holidays the family got wonderful large color photos of Bob’s work. It was also apparent that Bill had taught Bob about his studio lighting techniques as he used to win many photo shows with his work. I’m still a Miller’s customer 51 years later.

Zeb Starnes says:

Thank you for sharing this wonderful story of Mr Miller, so inspiring to all professional photographers & those who aspire to be. It’s great that from disasters wonderful things can happen. I am proud to say I have been a customer of Millers for approximately 30 years and have enjoyed their support in helping me learn & progress to become a Master of Photography & Photographic Craftsman. The quality of their work helped me with that achievement. Miller’s has always been a friend to our PPNC as well as other State orgamizations.

Thank you Bill for your service to our Country and to our industry.

Shari says:

This is wonderful! I’m so proud to be a faithful Miller’s customer, you guys are the very best! Thank you!

This was wonderful to read. It’s a small world, because my Dad, Col. Anthony J. Bochicchio, was in First Army and served under General Omar Bradley. I wonder if my Dad and Bill Miller knew each other?
I used to go with my parents to the 1ST and 12Th Army reunion’s every year, in Washington DC. I was fortunate enough to meet General Bradley and all the other army buddies of my Dad’s. I took the last reunion photo of those remaining, before they stopped having reunions. They wanted to end on a high note before there weren’t many left to meet. I always enjoyed seeing them and listening to their stories.
Thanks for sharing Bill Millers with us.
Jill

Darel Roa says:

Heartwarming and well written. So many ‘touch-points’, or life experiences described in such a manner that many of us can identify with them. Some of the standouts for me include: military photography training (my own mentor was a former Navy photographer), Scouting … would be interesting to learn more about Bill’s BSA history, Bill Stockwell – I was privileged to learn ‘flurries & clusters’ and more directly from Bill Stockwell. Plus the family and community emphasis, which depicts a well-rounded life. Makes us smile and feel good about associating with individuals and companies with this type of history. Thank you.

Angela says:

I enjoyed reading this story and Mr Miller. I even shared on my business Facebook page. I’m proud to be a Miller’s client since the beginning of my photographic career. I’ve been to the Columbia location a few times for classes and toured the facility. I feel that connected me personally to Miller’s. I’ve recently moved to Nashville from Missouri, but know the same quality and customer service is always the same. Thank you!

What a beautiful story, and a different point of view of veterans. I worked at Fort Monmouth, NJ, as a photographer, the last 3 years before they closed. I saw photos of some of the past photographers and their heavy cameras. There was also an exhibit at Brookdale Community College, of some of the photography during World War II, with Eisenhower. I think the Public Relations group created a history book of the base, and there were thousands of archived photos. I wonder if any of Bill’s photos were in the book. They credited those photographers if they knew who they were. They had many old historical photos hanging up on the base. Many of the Signal Corp Soldiers were trained there, not sure if Bill was. The base was in operation for a little over 90 years. I believe they moved many of the museum pieces and historical things to Aberdeen Proving Ground, in Maryland. Fascinating to see how these soldiers recorded our history in the middle of a war. Thankful they were there, and we can actually see what happened! Thank you for your service Bill, and being a photographer!

Ron Clevenger says:

Thank you for sharing this excerpt.

Early in my photographic career, Bill drove his Mustang up to our home called on my wife and I to become a Miller’s customer (!969?). It was during this visit, while touring our very modest cameraroom, in my parent’s home, I introduced Bill to my father, also a WW2 veteran and a member of a photo reconnaissance squadron in the Pacific. We needless to say they hit it off and shared many stories that evening and this is where I heard a first hand report of Bill’s filming of the King’s medal ceremony. Like most young kids at the time I did not realize that I actually was hearing stories from the guys that lived them! In the years since, I have searched the internet and actually found some of what I believe to be Bill’s footage of the events of that time in the chateau. The beginning to the footage starts with a close-up of a camera case with the name “Miller” on it, like the one he is pictured sitting on in the above photo.

Not long after this visit my new bride and I went to Pittsburg to have Bill and Suzie make photographs of us. A few weeks later I went to the Post Office and got a package of proofs with a note that said, “Do you want the negs or shall we keep them?”. When I got back in the car I heard on the radio news that the studio had burnt the night before. Well that answers that I thought, however some weeks later I received another package. This time it had 5 x 7″ black and white negatives with charred edges, still have the prints we made from them.

In all the years since, I am glad we made the choice to use MIller”s as our lab.

But more important that all of this, I want to thank Bill, my Dad and all of the other veterans for their service to our country!

Thank you for sharing this wonderful History of Miller’s Lab!

George E Singleton says:

Thank you for sharing this wonderful story. Thanks for Bill’s service to our nation. I’m glad Miller’s is my lab.

Jean Kling says:

So interesting….had no idea of the history behind Millers. Great read.

Cheri Lee says:

I learned of Millers when I was working at a Photograph Studio in San Marino, CA. I began sending my work to Millers and telling other photographers
they can’t find a better studio for development.
It was a privilege to get a tour of the facility in Kansas when I was visiting family in Wichita, Pretty Prairie and Hutchinson. Every photographer I meet I tell them the best place to get your work developed is Millers!
Thank you for the wonderful story you shared with us.

Barry Rittenberg says:

What a wonderful story about the man who started the best lab in the world. When I called Bill thirty some odd years ago and said Tom McDonald told me to call so we could do business together, Bill said he would send me an application to do business. I couldn’t believe a studio needed to apply to do business with a lab. Now, after dealing with the best lab in the world all these years, I have become close friends with many of Bill’s family members and employees. I became a Master of Photography, Photographic Craftsman and CPP with prints from Miller’s. When I was talking with a competitor at a PPA convention he asked if I didn’t find Miller’s service to be very impersonal because the lab is so big. I told him I found it to be the opposite. Miller’s service has always been very personal because of the many wonderful employees who always take fantastic care of their customers.

I have known all these years that Miller’s is the best and that Bill Miller was a kind and caring man, but until I read this article I knew nothing about his military service. Thank you for sharing this article and thank you Bill Miller for your service.


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