There is only one diptych hung on the wall when I arrive at Maria Neil Art Project. I'm catching up with photographer Bryon Miller, who has just begun to install his first solo exhibition in 10 years, Packaging materials, tools and a ladder create an almost ikebana feel to this boxed-in landscape. There are photographs lined up along the walls to be mounted. Installing artwork is precise math, and this highly organized disarray is the antecedent.
Miller has operated several galleries and organized countless exhibitions, working nonstop for as long as I can remember. "I'm exhausted." he says, summing it all up. "I've done a bunch of group shows, but solo shows are a monster. It's a stress inducing process. I mean, I definitely don't see all the mistakes from other artists as I'm hanging their work, but when you're hanging your own work, you see every little flaw. Creating art is not an easy thing. I think that's why I got into gallery ownership and curating exhibits. I like the struggle and I appreciate anyone who puts themselves out there. It's not an easy thing to do.
"Let's be honest, Cleveland isn't an easy place to be an artist. Do I miss curating? Of course I do, but I also had to put a lot of personal work on hold in order to do it. I have no regrets, though."
Moving through the gallery I inquire about his research and development. "This body of work started out as a feeling. A few years back when Lake Erie had frozen over, I had hiked about a half-mile out onto the frozen surface. The ice was pushing the sediment up onto itself. It made little rivers and these crazy things here. I actually had a Holga camera out there with me, so these are images of this sediment and clay that you don't usually see." (The Holga, designed in the early 1980s, is a 120 medium-format film camera known for its lo-fi aesthetic qualities.) "I looked back and realized how quiet it was, with just the sound of ice moving below me. As cliched as this story is beginning to sound, it started with that feeling. I suppose it was about being content with not understanding. I had an odd feeling of loss and detachment from the world around me. So these were the start of the whole process of being more in tune with ourselves. These pieces are about silence."
The image used in the show's promotional materials is a portrait of Miller's daughter, Frankie, and to say it's striking is a critical understatement. I'm reminded of the first time I saw the "Mona Lisa" in person, after years of scanning through art history books. In print, the painting looms so much larger than life; yet it is only 1-foot wide by 2-feet tall. In Miller's diptych, Frankie's gaze pierces right through us. Its silent accuracy is sublime.
"The whole show is traditionally done except for the six larger pieces," he says, pointing to the unframed work. "And these [photos of the band Hiram Maxim], Paul Duda pulled for me. They were supposed to be solely for this show, but then they used it for the back of their album. I shot these in my bathtub. All these guys got into my bathtub. I almost killed John [Panza]!" Miller jokes. "He survived, though. He's actually in the show twice. Everything else is selenium toned fiber paper, an archival paper printed at home in my own darkroom."
Miller is also an editorial and commercial photographer. He has shot several local, national, and international acts and currently works for four or five publications. "Yeah, I dig it. Working as a freelance photographer isn't as glamorous as one may think. It's a lot of work, travel, and late nights staring at a computer screen. But to be honest, it's great. I moved out of my old studio about a year and a half ago. I've been on location a lot, so it actually worked out to my benefit. I'm in the process of naming a new location very soon. I just want it to be right. I'm getting too old to move studios all the time. Photography gear is heavy."
Regarding this new body of photography, "It's imagery I hold close to my heart. I think that's all one can say. I can go on and on about the philosophical meaning behind it, but I'd rather you make up your own story. I got into photography because I wanted to work with film. A lot has changed, and it has become more of a side project for most photographers. But let's be honest, film is just plain beautiful."
Check out more of Miller's work at bryonmiller.net.