The disaffected have certain ceremonies, and the black man in the fur coat is celebrating his own private Fourth of July. In public, mind youin front of a Florsheim shoe store somewhere in downtown Washington, to be exact. In one hand he holds a long black umbrella; in the other, a small American flag. Who knows? Maybe it is the Fourth of Julybut if so, he’s drastically overdressed for the weather, as is apparent from the people passing by him in shirtsleeves. He holds various posesarms outstretched, arms held straight out in front of himthat give you the impression he’s semaphoring to a ship only he can see.
We’ve all seen himor at least someone like him. If you’ve lived in the city for a while, you’ve undoubtedly seen hundreds of his type. But usually not like thisnot on the walls of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, his haunting sojourn on that anonymous Washington street corner caught forever by photographer Joseph Mills, who has done as remarkable a job of capturing spiritual pain on film as anyone since Robert Frank.
With his neat ponytail and glasses, Mills, 51, looks like your typical mild-mannered liberal-arts professor, not a man who spent much of the ’80s on the streets photographing the District’s psychic casualties because, he says, “I was hurting so bad mentally and I was looking for people who were in the same space as I was. Those people were all mirrors for me at the time.”
Mills has come a long way since then. He and his wife, Mary DelPopolo, who is also an artist, live in a middle-class neighborhood of Annandale, Va., with their two sons, Tristan, 13, and Dorian, 11. “Joseph Mills: Inner City,” the exhibition of his work currently on display at the Corcoran, is his first-ever solo museum show; it opened in conjunction with another show at Georgetown’s Hemphill Fine Arts. Mills is also the head of the photography department at D.C.’s Dumbarton Oaks museum and gardens, where he has worked for 27 years, doing everything, he says, from “photographing million-dollar art objects to taking mug shots for employee IDs.”
It’s a pretty good life for an artist who has had only eight solo shows and been involved in perhaps a dozen group exhibitions during the course of his career and has struggled for years with exactly how to express himselfonce even putting aside his art entirely to raise giant pumpkins in the gardens of Dumbarton Oaks. It’s also a pretty good life for a man who has known more than his fair share of mental suffering, including a lengthy hospitalization following a psychotic episode at the age of 21. Mills says he was in for six months, but his father remembers it as more like a “year to a year and a half.” Extended bouts with serious depression have dogged Mills ever since.
“I wear myself outside my skin,” he tells me the first time we meet, and later he talks quietly about the Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire during the Vietnam War, about how he could relate to their “blank resignation in the face of some horrendous event or condition.”
Not that Mills is a stereotypically dour artistic type. He’s a friendly, soft-spoken man, and curious as wellthe kind of guy who is inclined to ask interviewers just as many questions as they ask him. And if he can be highfalutinhe’s prone to making statements like “I believe in the absolute”he can also be very down-to-earth: He adores Thin Lizzy, for example, and he tells a damn good off-color pumpkin joke. He recently concluded a lecture on his work by producing a top hat, having the attendees put slips of paper with their names written on them into it, drawing one out, and giving away a piece of his art to the lucky winner.
But Mills’ friendliness belies the fierceness of his artistic vision. According to Corcoran Curator for Photography and Fine Arts Paul Roth, who organized “Inner City” and has known Mills for around five years, “The photos are like shrapnel from an explosion in your mind: You can feel this radioactive hum when you look at them. They have the character of a memorya Remembrance of Things Past quality. There’s something almost painful and emotional about looking at them. They’re the physical manifestations of emotional distress.”
Like the surrealists he has long looked to for inspiration, Mills believes that the artist should approach the art-making process with a certain amount of contemptself- and otherwise. “The surrealists had a great feel for contempt,” he says. “For their materials, for the art world, for school, for the macrocosm of art school. I mean, schools to show you how to be an artist? What the hell is that all about?”
Mills took almost all of his street photographs with a 35 mm camera while on the move and shooting from the hip, and the works on view in “Inner City” are testimony to one artist’s determination to get out of his own way. “You have to remember,” says Roth, “that at the time, Joe was so disturbed by the people he saw, and he didn’t have the camera as a shield between himself and the world he was photographing.”
“I’m not terribly interested in my own ideas,” Mills says. “They seem ridiculously laborious and uninteresting. I had to find methods that bypassed my own thinking. Which is why 98 or 99 percent of the time I just hip-shot. I simply didn’t have anything to offer looking through the camera. The camera showed me that it worked just beautifully working on its own.”
Mills began making art during his teens in the late ’60s, when he conducted what he calls “some very humble experimentation with home film cameras” and made his first rudimentary forays into street photography and collage. He knew then that he would become an artist, but it was a struggle from the start. Indeed, the battle was joined when, with the encouragement of a supportive teacher, a 16-year-old Mills signed up to take a summer photography class at the Corcoran.
“From the very first assignment, I knew I had found my sustenance,” Mills says. “I no sooner put my hands on these materials than I knew I’d found myself. It was overwhelming. So when it came time to show my parents my very first portfolio, I couldn’t wait to show them. And my dad’s only response was ‘What is this shit? You spent your summer doing this?’”
Soon enough, the young photographer found himself caught up in that age-old story wherein a successful, worldly father reacts with contempt to his son’s artistic aspirations. “He was not there,” says Mills with some understatement, “to make me feel confident.”
A player in Republican Party circlessuch a player, in fact, that he named his son in honor of Republican Speaker of the House Joseph W. Martin and asked fellow Wisconsinite Joseph McCarthy to be his son’s godfatherJack Mills was the party’s man in charge of security at several Republican presidential conventions before becoming a lobbyist for the Tobacco Institute. According to Mills, his father cultivated “a macho, James Bond persona” and sported about in “the world’s fastest car, a Cobra 427” purchased from legendary sports-car designer Carroll Shelby himself. Growing up in his father’s shadow left Mills deeply ambivalent: “I grew up without much of a fatheryet I still wanted to be like him.”
“I was a lousy father and a real boozer,” concedes Jack Mills, who has been sober for over two decades. “I accept the blame for a lot of Joe’s problems.” He acknowledges discouraging his son from pursuing photography as a career, saying, “I told him we had more broken-down photographers in this country than anything else. I wanted him to go into engineering or medicine or the law.”
Mills says he got his artistic bent from his mother, Anna Mills, a Wisconsin farm girl who grew up “with three brothers tracking manure through the house” before moving with her husband to a Polish neighborhood in Milwaukee. “People think you’ve got to have certain credentials to be an artist,” Mills says. “But my mother grew up on a dairy farm, and she inspired me. I’d watch her when I was a young boy, cutting Christmas cards and making these beautiful boxes. She had a very profound hand, showed great attention to detail. She had a loose, flowing quality to the way she cooked. And she made some of the strangest perceptions on earth as she walked down the roadI mean, they came from way, way out in left field. I grew up with women, with three sisters, no father around: I learned to be a good cook and a good housewife, and I have trouble with men.”
The Millses lived in Wisconsin until Mills was 10 (“I grew up,” he says, “with that lovely Polish heritage of eating organ meat and kissing men on the mouth”), when his father’s work took the family to its new home in the Country Club Hills section of Alexandria, Va. Following his graduation from Bishop Denis J. O’Connell High School, Mills hoped to study art. His father, naturally, was opposed. They finally compromised on New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology, where it was expected that Mills would develop some art skills that he could put to use in the business world.
But discovering a way to make his talent marketable turned out to be the last thing on Mills’ mind during his time at RIT, because it was then that he experienced the break with reality that would profoundly affect the rest of his life. Mills ended up dropping out of school23 years would pass before he’d graduate, on the dean’s list, from American Universityand returning home. He’d developed the conviction that he could predict the outcomes of sporting events, as well as the belief, he says, that “everything’s a symbol for something else,” and he soon found himself in the hospital. There, he spent much of his time watching Jeopardy! as part of “his secret mission.” He also recalls a traumatic moment when, upon seeing his physician’s namewhich he remembers to be Gregorian Lipshitzon the door of his room, he came to the grim conclusion that it was his diagnosis.
According to Mills, the episode came to an abrupt end one evening while he was watching Jeopardy!. “I was trying to beat the television contestantsthat was part of my assignmentwhen I suddenly said to myself, ‘Why am I still here? Mission over.’”
But his struggle to recover continuedMills says he spent the five years following his hospitalization in “a severe depression, without medication”as did his problems with his father. “Oh, we were both pissed,” says Mills. “But one of our saving graces was we always took the time to tell each other how pissed off and angry we were with each other. And that line of communication was important, because it kept us together long enough to begin to experience the dissipation of this anger. One evening we were out on the Eastern Shore and we went for a walk, and I was angry because my sons were with me and he had unlocked guns in the house. Finally he agreed to lock the guns up.
“AndI don’t even want to go into this; it’s too emotionalI said, ‘The past is over with; it’s gone.’ And in an evening’s time, that whole thing, all those years of anger, just lifted. And what’s even more amazing is that in a week or so my tastes in music, in movies, in literature all changed dramatically. Before that, I’d been on a binging diet of violence because my tastes had all been poisoned by this thing. But you think that’s just the way life is. And then you realize how this unresolved situation poisoned the whole well. You thought the world was like that, but that was just the way you experienced the world.”
Mills’ fatherwho says he is “so proud” of the man his son has becomeis similarly emotional when talking about their reconciliation. “We talked ’til about 4 in the morning,” he says. “And we concluded we were both assholes. It was the best thing that ever happened to both of us.” Later, Mills would introduce his father to an audience assembled at the Corcoran as his “hero.” “That’s what it’s all about,” says Jack Mills.
Like plenty of other thoughtful souls who came of age in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Mills has long wrestled with ideas about expanding your consciousness and surrendering your ego to become an undifferentiated part of the cosmic soup. “From early on,” he says. “I felt these irritations about making art, about this constant battle with self-expression, which at the time didn’t seem the appropriate thing to dothat was a bad thing.”
But Mills’ hospitalization taught him a few things about the importance of selfhood. “Before it happened,” he says. “I was in a Zen rut: I wanted to lose my ego and avoid choosing. It wasn’t until many years later that I accepted that I wasn’t some kind of priest and I embraced my limitations. I was so grateful to have limitations, because my limitations defined me. I’d experienced what it was like not to have a shape, to lose your mind that way…and suddenly I was happy to be old Joe Mills. I don’t need to be at one with the universe.”
Mills’ street photography, which he began producing in 1982, arose from a very simple need: “I would take their photographs,” he says of his subjects, “and I would be saved for at least a few days after that.” For seven years, Mills followed the same routine: He would park in the 7th Street gallery district and start snapping photographs immediately. His regular route would take him to Washington Circle and back, and Mills says he spent a lot of time around 10th and F Streets NW, as well as in “the little parks on K Street.”
The resulting photos of Mills’ “brothers in arms and partners in purgatory”Mills estimates that he took roughly 50,000 of them are bleak but also beautiful. One depicts an old man in work clothes sitting on a bench, a stream of liquid creeping from beneath his foot and toward the camera. Fingers entwined on his lap, his face enveloped in shadow, he seems to regard the camera with an ambiguous emotion, half curiosity, half distrust. Two other pieces show a shirtless old man reeling lost in what appears to be alcoholic delirium, his eyes shut, the stump of his amputated arm matter-of-factly exposed. Another photo captures a woman in a chic-looking strapless dress standing outside a store in one high-heel shoe, the toes of the unshod foot barely touching the sidewalk.
When asked about the almost religious intensity of some of these works, Mills says, “They’re Christian to the extent that Christianity is one of the few religions that really contends with pain. That’s what attached me to Christianity: that it addresses intense degrees of pain instead of trying to turn it into something that” He falters. “Let’s just say that I don’t know of another religion that focuses on an impaled human/deity as a centerpiece.”
Simultaneously with the street photographs, Mills has created an impressive body of collages, some of which were on view in the recent “PhotoMontageCollage” show at Hemphill Fine Arts. Mills began making collages during his brief stay at RIT, with the goals of producing pieces that look like and have the documentary authority of photographs. His mature worksone graces the cover of David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Againare more disturbing than whimsical, full of an almost nightmarish restlessness.
Indeed, finding your way through thingsand out the other sideis important to Mills, both in his life and in his art. “What I look for in an artist,” he says, “is somebody who can show us the way through things. And what disappoints me about Robert Frank”whose photography, especially his influential 1958 book The Americans, has had a large impact on Mills’ work”is that I saw early on that he was taking us through the gauntlet, that he was trying to take us to the other side. But Frank didn’t go there; he just stayed a sad man. And I hope some day that young artists will be able to look at my work and see there’s a way through things, that it may help save a few young men and women who are trying to get through it.”
Mills smiles. “Art is an incredible thing.”
Incredible, yes, but difficult and often frustrating as well. In fact, Mills has on several occasions given up art completely. In the mid-’70s, for example, he stopped making photographs and collages and took up what he calls “free-form electric guitar.” He didn’t make any other art for eight years.
“I was very frustrated with photography and art-making, and desperately looking for something to ground myself in,” he says. “I’d been through psychosis and gone through a complete disintegration….I couldn’t call myself an artist….It just seemed simpler to call myself a musician.”
That desire can be traced to Mills’ exposure to electric-guitar icon Jimi Hendrix as a teenager. “It was a life-shaping experience,” he says of the night some friends talked him into attending a concert at a ballroom in downtown D.C. “It wasn’t music. It was a dinosaur, a living organism…#.There was Hendrix with his Strat turned upside-down, a bowler hat on. He hammered and pulled on that neck for four or five minutes, fucked that guitar and fucked my mind up right along with it. I couldn’t sleep for days.”
Mills’ own guitar-playing was not quite as jam-based as Hendrix’s. He says he “came to guitar with a collagist’s sensibility” and spent considerable amounts of time doing what he calls “blind tracking”randomly placing his recorded guitar atop “sound surfaces” he’d record from television, the radio, and “records with peculiar skips.” Like any aspiring musician, he sought the company of similar-minded collaborators, but he says he had peculiarly poor luck finding them.
Mills placed an ad in a local newspaper, but, he says, “worded it in such a way that I wouldn’t attract any Lynyrd Skynyrd types. I think it said something about ‘jamming the doors of perception.’ Instead, I had a guy respond who wanted to play in bumblebee outfits and call our band 30th-Century Man. Then this acidhead showed up who told me about this experience he had tripping where he was in everything but his body, and from which he concluded that death was even worse than life. He lived in an ice-cream truck. There was this Iraqi guy I really hit it off with, but he had drug problems. It was for the best, really. I was losing my hearing. I liked to play very loud.”
Even though his attempts at musical collaboration came to naught, Mills believes he benefited greatly from the experience. “I learned a lot about photography by playing music,” he says. “I realized there wasn’t much difference between the two. The formal qualities are truly the greater part of art, and they’re shared by all the media. The formal side is the most mysterious side of it. You can look at a photograph of the same content by two people, and one of them may be flat while the other one just knocks you out.”
Guitar-playing hasn’t been Mills’ only full-time distraction from art, however: In the mid-’90s, he spent two fantastical years attempting to grow the Great Pumpkin.
“Ah, the giant pumpkin,” says George Hemphill, who met Mills in 1984 and has been his friend and dealer for many years. “Joe got interested in giant pumpkins and decided to plant one of his own. And he went into pumpkin-growing 100 percent. He would not leave that pumpkin unattendedhe was out at all hours of the night, massaging it and rubbing special ointments on bug bites. He would buy rhino shit for fertilizer from the zoo. It became this kind of surreal object for him that fit in visually with his collage work. But it took so much time away from his making art. And by the end I was like, ‘Enough with the fucking pumpkins!’”
Mills, naturally enough, sees things differently, though he does acknowledge that his pumpkin obsession came close to costing him both his wife and his job. It all began, Mills suggests, after a 1997 solo show in an abandoned beauty salon. A former Bavarian beer hall, the basement-level space tended to flood during rainstorms, worsening its already powerful smells of mold and urine.
“The whole experience kicked up a real bad [obsessive-compulsive disorder] experience for me,” says Mills. “It was like the mold from that salon was following me around. I was taking the seats out of my car trying to get rid of it. The thing about OCD is, it can either be funneled productively or in a direction where it just gets wasted; it’s like the rods in a nuclear reactor. So finally I quit photography and got into pumpkins. At first I was growing them casually, and then somebody threw this book on how to grow giant pumpkins at meand soon I was thinking about competitive pumpkin-growing 24 hours a day.”
DelPopolo believes Mills’ sudden preoccupation stemmed from another source. “It all started when I got pregnant,” she says. “I started getting bigger and I think he got jealous. Watching me grow made him want to start growing something.”
Mills began with watermelons, then moved on to pumpkins. Both DelPopolo and Mills’ employer, which allowed him to use Dumbarton garden space, were supportive at first, but they grew less so as his work began to suffer. “I lost my artist husband to pumpkin-growing,” says DelPopolo. “Every word that came out of his mouth had something to do with his pumpkin. He was filling up bottles of ice for the thing. I was glad when he came out of it.”
“Pumpkin-growing is a tremendous metaphor for art-making,” Mills says. “In pumpkin-growing, you have to tend to the plant tenderly and methodically without asking much of it, and without seeing much change from day to day. Faith is all you have to go on. You don’t really know what’s coming, and you don’t know if it’s coming at all. It’s so like art, where you develop a body of artwork over decades but nothing happens for a long, long time.”
Mills also found pumpkin-growing to be soul-soothing. “Tending to the plant has a meditative quality to it,” he says, “and maybe that’s what I needed after the salon show. At some point in the development of the plant, there comes the first female blossom, which you have to pollinate by hand. It’s an absolutely beautiful and delicate process, transferring the pollen to the female flower. Then you watch this pumpkin, over the next 30 days, gain 400 pounds.”
Though Mills now considers himself retired from the world of competitive pumpkining, he still admires how “a pumpkin patch is an inherent bit of surrealism in gardening, like Magritte’s apples and Tanguy’s surreal landscapes of biomorphic shapes.” And he describes the day in 1998 that he hauled his second and final prize-winning pumpkin to a competition in Altoona, Pa., as “one of the peak moments” of his life. The giant gourd weighed in at a whopping 470 pounds, phenomenal for a pumpkin in these climes. In fact, Mills’ monstrosity still squats in the record books as the largest fruit of the Cucurbita pepo vine ever cultivated in the District of Columbia.
Giant pumpkins aside, perhaps the oddest thing about Mills’ career is that Mills himself judged much of it, for the longest time, a failure. When he stopped working the streets, with just a few hundred of his thousands of shots printed, he believed “the work was good, but there was something I had not accomplished. I definitely felt that something I desired had not come about.”
With the passage of time, however, his attitude toward the work shifted. “Ten years go by, you have kids, and you get healthier,” he says. “And at some point I revisited the negatives and, lo and behold, the photographs I had only dreamed of taking all lay in front of me. The photographs ended up being the pictures I thought I’d failed to take, the work I thought had never existedbecause I was no longer looking at them as mirrors. It’s absolutely beautiful and almost incomprehensible how that worked, how over time you feel yourself heal inside, and the work takes on a completely different nature than it had at the time.”
Roth agrees: “The ‘Inner City’ photos take on a whole added character by having been developed 15 to 20 years after they were taken. Joe’s work gets better as he works in memory; there’s a quality to his work now that he’s not printing as he’s shooting. At the time, he was so disturbed by the people he saw, and when he quit doing them, in ’89, he felt he hadn’t done justice to this world he saw. Later, he felt much freer, and the work is much freer.”
Around the time his first son was born, Mills quit producing his street photographs because, he says, “I didn’t want my creativity to distract from my son.” He also stopped making collages at the furious pace he used to. But he hasn’t given up on making art altogether. “His work ethic dwarfs that of anybody I’ve ever known,” says Hemphill. “He has such an immense backlog of things. And he has work virtually nobody knows anything about. For instance, he’s taken over 800 photographs of his wife. This is work I’d never seen or heard of until recently.”
Mills enjoys domestic life and says that having grown up with three sisters makes him good at it. During interludes in the tumult of helping to raise two boys, he finds time to take the photographs of DelPopolo that have been his primary artistic work as of late. “It’s kind of an oasis for me,” says Mills, “a love affair through photography. It’s where I go amongst the harshness of the collage work, the street work: to the physical world of a beautiful woman, a wife, and a lover.”
According to DelPopolo, these sessions are an informal once-a-week affair, in which she and Mills pass the camera back and forth photographing each other. “It’s always been that way,” she says. ” This is what our dates were: Joe with his camera, taking pictures at stoplights.” The only formal settings, she says, occurred when Mills “documented” her pregnancy.
Mills describes DelPopolo, who teaches at Howard University and the Corcoran School of Art, as “a hell of a woman.” The two met when the 16-year-old Mills saw her at a church dance. “It was,” he says, “pure total love from the first time I held her.” DelPopolo agrees: “I never had that feeling for anybody before or after.” They’ve been together ever since, and were married in 1981, after a long courtship punctuated by Christmas-dinner “announcements” that the two of them had “decided to continue dating one another.” (Mills laughs describing a previous marriage proposition, made while he was hospitalized back in 1972: When DelPopolo told her parents the news, her mother said only, “I don’t think Joe’s ready yet.”)
These days, Mills is committing the bulk of his time to a new project: cataloguing his vast body of work. “I did a curious thing,” he says. “I kind of killed Joe Mills and became his archivist. I decided to look at the work as if I’d just discovered it not really knowing much about it. Probably the best thing I ever did was stop making art and start looking at it through an archivist’s sensibility. It was the key to understanding the work.
“Artists don’t really spend enough time doing that,” he adds. “I know I didn’t. I just didn’t understand the necessity of the almost scientific component of trying to make sense of data. You have to bring an entirely new mindset to it. That’s what’s beautiful about being 37 years into thisthis ability to synthesize a large body of work. Because you begin to see that your work can serve as a mirror of the larger picture, for understanding the largest concepts that you can grab hold of in the universeit’s incredibly exciting.”
His assertions to the contrary, Mills the archivist is unlikely to kill off Mills the artist anytime soon. Indeed, Mills concedes that he currently has 50 to 60 new collages in the works. He has also been working on a series of collages in book form, and he expects one, Loves of the Poets, to be released next year by Tucson, Ariz.-based Nazraeli Press. Another forthcoming book”a very small one,” says Millswill pair one of Mills’ prints with a short story by Roth. These will join Inner City, which was co-published this year by Nazraeli and Hemphill Fine Arts.
Mills also hopes to nurture others who are working on the outskirts of an art world that he suggests is “almost completely shaped by a market mentality.” “When I see an artist who hasn’t been tainted or shaped yet, it’s very exciting for meI have to give back, and I have to guide those who are receptive,” he says.
“The artists I like are the ones who have done their work in secret, who have been secretly and quietly doing something. They have work that would be difficult to sell or even showthey have that purity. And it’s harder and harder to find. You have to go into people’s secret diaries and get them to show you things they’re afraid to show.” CP