BY LEE ANN SANDWEISS
Trying to be a better teacher is what led Tyagan Miller to become a professional photographer at the age of 40.
“In 1988, I was part of a group designing an alternative school for at-risk kids in Indianapolis, and I got a Lilly teachers’ grant to buy a camera for a project I envisioned my students doing to explore their community,” says Miller, 59, a longtime Bloomington resident. “The project didn’t work out, but now I had a camera.”
Miller, who is self-taught, attracted the notice of prominent photography dealer Lee Marks, who offered to represent Miller’s work, and in 1992 Miller became a full-time freelance magazine and documentary photographer. Today he is the creative director of the IU Foundation, and his work is in numerous collections and museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Photography (Chicago), the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the IU Art Museum. His photographs have earned critical and scholarly attention, as in a new book After Weegee: Essays on Contemporary Jewish American Photographers, by Daniel Morris (Syracuse University Press).
“The ah-ha moment that led to this book was a gallery talk on Tyagan’s ‘Covenant’ exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art,” says Morris, a professor of English at Purdue University. “The work had an insider’s perspective, but the curator told us that Tyagan was in fact a New Jersey-born Jew, who sought to explore how an all-black church in Indianapolis helped the at-risk students he taught.” Subsequent conversations with Miller convinced Morris that Jewish American photographers did not necessarily photograph overtly Jewish themes, but that many of them—including Bruce Davidson, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Annie Leibovitz, who are also discussed in After Weegee—have carried on the social-justice and documentary tradition practiced by Arthur Fellig (a.k.a. Weegee), whose work depicts stark scenes of urban life in New York City during the 1930s and ’40s.
Recently, Miller was commissioned by the George Eastman House and The Cultural Landscape Foundation to photograph endangered post-war landscapes for the exhibition “Marvels of Modernism” at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. He is currently working on two new series—one of local landscapes and one of portraits of people in meditation, tentatively titled Facing Buddha.
To view Miller’s work, visit tyaganmiller.com.