The Wonderful World of Bucky Miller
Confronted with a picture of a broom stuck upside down in the tarmac in the broiling sunlight, my mind starts buzzing. Is this a prank pulled by the local kids? Is this a road worker having a particularly bad day? Is this a feeble attempt by an overzealous health and safety officer to create a warning sign of some sort? Another image shows an ornamental horse’s head on the top of a fence being strangled by Christmas lights. Which desperate housewife decided that this was a good idea? That it would somehow add a certain je ne sais quoi to the festive period? My mind conjures a picture of a married couple with two kids sitting around the Christmas tree pretending to have a great time, but secretly wishing it was over. A third image shows a jug containing a white substance. The tacky sticker informs the viewer that this is regular milk. The pedant in me rears its ugly head. Is there such a thing as irregular milk?
I was once asked what had made me fall in love with photography. After giving it some thought, I concluded that photography allows me to be transported to other places and other worlds, to construct narratives and to tell tall tales. It did not matter what kind of photography I was looking at. It tied in nicely with John Berger’s observation: “A photograph, while recording what has been seen, always and by its nature refers to what is not seen. […] Yet this apparent limitation gives the photo its unique power. What it shows invokes what is not shown.”¹ The best photographs hint at stories large and small, and allow for my imagination to go for a wander.
When I first met Bucky Miller, I quickly concluded that he was a restless, wide-eyed wanderer ready to discover the world. With the benefit of hindsight it turned out to be a remarkably astute observation. But it only conveys part of the tale. Miller is indeed a restless wanderer, albeit one that is not necessarily going the geographical distance. Instead he dips in and out of books, museums, films, exhibition spaces, podcasts, conversations, and above all his own imagination. On his peregrinations he is filled with a sense of wonder, amazement and enthusiasm about the possible discoveries lying ahead. As Miller puts it: “I think the most important thing for me is to communicate some sense of the unspeakable thrill of being present, which is always really subjective, and, at times, terrifying.”²
Miller is indeed a restless wanderer, […] he dips in and out of books, museums, films, exhibition spaces, podcasts, conversations, and above all his own imagination.
To be filled with wonder is not always appreciated or understood, even in art. As Marcel Feil observes: “Wonder is something for the daydreamers, and our society is too focused on usefulness and efficiency to give them much sympathy or space. Our activities are result-oriented and it is on their results they are judged and valued.”³ By allowing wonder to be a guiding principle of his work, Miller stands separate from certain current strands in American photography where the technical boundaries of the medium are still being explored, where the shift from analogue to digital is still laboriously and somewhat tediously being processed. The images created by Lucas Blalock, Joshua Citarella and Kate Steciw are exemplary in that regard.
Instead, Miller’s work sits far more comfortably amongst a generation of mostly European photographers for whom humour plays an important role. A similarity in outlook can be discerned in the work of Dutch artists such as Annegien van Doorn, Jaap Scheeren and WassinkLundgren, or that of French and Swiss artists such as Thomas Mailaender, Linus Bill and Onorato & Krebs. These artists have a knack for creating amusing photographs, for making astute observations of the world around them, for seeing things that others do not see, for paying attention to the banal and the absurd, and turning that firmly on its head. They espouse a certain abhorrence of Art as a Serious Business, Art as a Technically Proficient Product, Art as a Large Format Framed Limited Edition Print. But there is more to that abhorrence than just that. The kind of photographs these artists produce do not lend themselves easily to an acceptable art world straitjacket. Another outlet is needed. By necessity these artists end up experimenting with diverse ways of presenting the work. This can take the form of installations, sculptures, books, wallpapers, mock-ups, mirrors and mechanical contraptions.
The kind of photographs these artists produce do not lend themselves easily to an acceptable art world straitjacket. Another outlet is needed.
Whilst the images by the aforementioned artists are often deliberately created in front of the camera, or manipulated afterwards to achieve the desired result, Miller prefers to discover things in situ and leave the picture itself unaltered. In that sense he has much in common with another Dutch artist, Paulien Oltheten. Both use the camera for what the camera simply does best: record. For that reason they both prefer to work with simpler consumer models rather than high-end equipment. But the similarities go further than that. Just like Miller, Oltheten is an intrepid explorer that goes out into the world and comes home with a multitude of observations, which she then tosses onto a metaphorical heap to make sense of later. Once the dust has settled, she sets out to construct a world of her own, to make connections between completely unrelated scenes, but that somehow make complete sense. And just like Oltheten, Miller is a collector. One with an uncanny eye for the weird, the wonderful and the outright funny. That is how a photograph of a jug of regular milk can sit next to a picture of a broom stuck in the tarmac adjacent to a shot of a horse’s head adorned by Christmas lights. Collecting these images is a way to grapple with the existing world, to conquer it, to understand it, and to own it.
It is not surprising that globes, maps, fake horses, strange animals, skeletons, planes and space suits are recurring motifs in Miller’s work. They refer to the space age, the age of discovery and scientific breakthroughs. They serve as metaphors to travel distances, to compress time, to find treasures and to move ever onwards and upwards. Together they form a collection of images, a scrapbook almost, that constitutes a world of his own making. It is a world that by necessity keeps growing and changing. It is a daydreamer’s world of almost nebulous dimensions, a world that is entirely his. A world that gives enough ways in and escape routes out, enough treasures, discoveries and inventions, enough ambiguity and uncertainty for the viewer’s imagination to go on a wonderful journey.
Collecting these images is a way to grapple with the existing world, to conquer it, to understand it, and to own it.
This essay was first published in a student catalogue produced as part of the MFA programme in Studio Art at the University of Texas at Austin.
¹ See John Berger. Understanding a Photograph. Edited by Geoff Dyer. 2013, London, Penguin Classics. Pp. 20. Emphasis in original.
² From the interview with At Length Mag. http://atlengthmag.com/art/exquisite-syntropy/
³ See Foam Magazine #19 Wonder. 2009, Amsterdam. Pp. 29.