Wayne Miller, the chronicler of a black post-war Chicago, has died, aged 95.
When Wayne Miller returned to Chicago after serving as a combat photographer for the U.S. Navy, he witnessed how his hometown had changed. The city’s south side had been attracting African-Americans since the “Great Migrations” of the 1910s and the 1920s — so much so that the suburb of Bronzeville was known as the “Black Metropolis” – but Miller arrived back at a city whose industry had grown exponential during the war. Stockyards, mills, and factories were now manned by a new upwardly mobile class of African-Americans who fled the oppression of the south and emigrated to Chicago searching for industrial jobs.
With the help of the great Edward Steichen, whom he befriended during the war (and with whom he would corroborate later), Miller won two concurrent Guggenheim fellowships to fund his ambitious project to document this new social fabric. The two-year effort, collected as “The Way of the Northern Negro”, was an intimate portrait of a bygone Chicago, from church services to tea [marijuana] parties to demimonde of female impersonators.
In his Chicago, midwives delivered babies in dim-lit homes; slaughterhouse workers drank and brawled in the taverns till morning; couples made love with open windows and on balconies. And all human life was there, from celebrities like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington to an ordinary man [photo below] whom Langston Hughes singled out as the perfect image of his famed character “Simple”.
Miller’s assessment was so sympathetic and so full of hope that it was chosen to accompany Richard Wright’s bleaker essay “The Shame of Chicago” in the Ebony Magazine. It was also the first time the magazine broke its own rules to give the photographer a byline.