John Miller retires to focus on personal projects

John Miller is ending his time at NVU-Johnson this semester, halfway through what was originally planned to be a two-year phase-out into retirement after 16 years at NVU. Miller is a professor of photography and digital imaging in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts.

“I wanted to spend more time working on my own projects in photography,” said Miller, on why he has decided to end his phase-out early. “I have quite a number of things I’m working on right now that are unfinished, unresolved. I want to bring them into some form of completion,” he said. “I’ve been working as a photographer for 50 years now. Once you put in all that time, and you still have the desire and will to continue doing it, I think it’s a time where I have to start pulling together all those ideas and get them down, recorded and documented in some way.”

Miller talked in depth about the project he’s currently working on, which he says he hopes he’ll be able to complete once he retires.

“Last fall, I continued a project of going out and picking up all kinds of old leaves and whatever was in my backyard,” said Miller. “Leaves, bark, I picked up a dead goldfinch and I put all of these objects and scanned them on a scanner. They made very high-resolution scans and then I just laid out this book of all these beautiful objects, leaves and tendrils and all kinds of things that are organic. But I’m also extremely agitated about the state of our political situation in this country and I’m interested in other cultures, particularly when they talk about a particular empire, like the Roman Empire. The fall is also a concept that pervades mythology, the fall from grace. In the United States, there is a kind of fall happening in terms of what we’ve thought of a culture of some sense of morality. That’s all being questioned right now with the particular president we have. As I laid out this material, the title of the book is “The Fall,” but that was only part of the theme of the book. We know our president happens to be a bit of a big Tweeter. He has been particularly outspoken about global warming, which is an abstract concept for many… I found a wonderful trove of his tweets on global warming and included them in the book. The pictures of the leafs that are about to crumble are juxtaposed with these quotes by our president about global warming.”

Although he is now going to be focusing on his own projects, Miller says he enjoyed working with students and alongside his colleagues. “It’s been a very important part of my everyday life and I’ve enjoyed it immensely,” said Miller. “I’ve learned a great deal in the process of teaching. It has been a wonderful way to round out my career being a photographer. I’ve learned a great deal of things from my students, from technical to humility to working with young minds and how to challenge students and get them involved and passionate about a subject. That’s a really exciting thing for a teacher to see that happening with students.”

While Miller is retiring from teaching at NVU-Johnson, he doesn’t think his departure will mark the end of teaching as a part of his life. He noted that teaching is not confined to the classroom. “I hope to do some teaching in some form again,” said Miller. “Some of my teaching might be in the form of producing books that hopefully challenge people to consider the state of where we are.”

The one thing Miller is going to miss the most about teaching are the people that he has met, who he says have all been wonderful and helpful in his growth as an artist. “I’ve found the whole Johnson community to be really good people,” said Miller. “It’s a good bunch, just one big family around here. Everybody’s really supportive of others. Getting back to my colleagues in the art department, it has been fun working with them. The aspect of doing artwork is very solitary. But you have to come back home and be with family again, it can be with colleagues or with your actual family but you can’t be back on your own for too long. You can’t just work in isolation, you have to be in the midst of others to trade that energy and keep the process going.”
Miller’s students say that he has left a lasting impact on them, inspiring a passion for photography and detail. For many, he has been a reliable professor who does what he can to ensure that his students succeed.

“He’s one of the nicest people that I’ve met,” said Caroline Loftus, a junior in the media arts major. “He puts himself out there; he’s easy to talk to. He makes it easy to want to work hard and he’s very helpful. He’s answered any question I’ve ever had with extreme detail. He wants his students to succeed and he takes every measure to make sure they do succeed. He cares a lot about each of his students. “I’m definitely sad he’s retiring. He has so much to teach people. I’ve seriously enjoyed his presence and hope everyone had the opportunity to get a class with him while he was here.”

Another one of Miller’s students shared how he helped her when she was struggling in his class. “When we first met, I had some trouble with some of his formats in class and he redid a lot of them for me,” said Jessica Grimes, an art education and BFA major. “The contrast of the black and white of the computer screens weren’t working with me so he printed them off for me. He’s one of those people who will go out of his way to do what he needs to do to get you where you need to be, even though his expectations are high.”

He hasn’t only helped students in the classroom but has given some of them invaluable knowledge that they can apply broadly. When asked about something that Miller taught her, Grimes said, “That everybody has a story and everybody’s story is important in some way and can probably help somebody down the line. [I learnt that] through my independent study with him. He does a lot of documentary stuff, which I didn’t realize until I did the independent study. He’s incorporated a lot of his own life into his work, which pushed me to do the same in my work.”

Students aren’t the only ones who are going to miss Miller. For Ken Leslie, chair of the fine arts department, Miller has been an ideal colleague. “He’s a pleasure,” said Leslie. “I’m going to miss him because he’s the only one here that’s older than I am. That makes me the old codger of the art department now. He’s tremendously sophisticated. He has traveled the world. He’s taken students out on trips to Italy and he always has a wonderful warm take on the world. He is the best gentleman we’ve got in our building here, the rest of us are much more dangerous, I’d say.”

Leslie said that his positions are going to be filled, although they may not work the same way they did under Miller.
“I think it is unlikely that we would fill it with exactly the expertise that he has, which is mostly in photography with some digital components,” said Leslie. “That’s mostly because the world has changed. People are still interested in photography but there’s a very big interest in all the digital forms of art. John has done some of that, but it might be a position that emphasizes the digital a little bit more. We have to wait until we can go ahead and do it and then we can see what we get. It’s definitely not going to be replaced immediately but we are replacing the sculpture position, so we’re not in big trouble.”