Jerry McMillan: Reshaping the Language of Photography

Words: Larry Lytle

It seems amazing that a two-dimensional representation of the everyday has become so powerful. Yet we can attribute its overwhelming influence to the ease with which it seduces us by its semblance of and resemblance to everything around us. Photographs have become ubiquitous, and we are exposed to an uncountable number of them every day. The vocabulary (which is the recognizable subject matter we see in every photograph) created by these billions of images has fused the myriad of familiar subjects into one of our preferred forms of expression.

Given the universal codification and acceptance of this vocabulary, one can imagine what a difficult, if not audacious task it would be to try and change photography’s language, or at the very least, add to its vocabulary. For the past 50 years, artist/photographer Jerry McMillan has been on a quest to do just that. McMillan’s disarming Oklahoma drawl cloaks his keen intelligence and makes him seem an unlikely artistic revolutionary, yet his efforts to reshape and expand our notions of what photography can be are on a par with other radicals such as Robert Heinecken and Thomas Barrow.

I was a student of McMillan’s at Cal State Northridge from 1978 through 1983, and his views on photography’s subject matter/vocabulary (from this point on I use the terms interchangeably) profoundly changed the way I use photography as art and as a means of communication (as it did for the thousands of students he taught over the course of his 20 odd years teaching at Southern California universities).

He often repeats that the visual language of photography — the way we interact with it both as photographers and as viewers — consists of relying on “existing familiar subject matter.” It’s his contention that we have become habituated, either through expectation or habit, to keep taking the same basic photograph by relying on the same basic subject matter. This has been so since the beginning and continues today: people, landscapes, war, everyday objects and so on constitute the visual vocabulary of our photographs. The photographer sees the outside world and records it; consumers of photographic media expect to see and understand those recordings. Message sent, message received.

McMillan’s long intellectual journey to challenge the basis of photography’s visual language wasn’t a consideration when he studied art at his high school in Oklahoma City. Nor was it when he went on to Oklahoma City University to study painting and graphic design. That odyssey began when his friend Ed Ruscha convinced him to come to Los Angeles to study art at the Chouinard Art Institute, where Ruscha had arrived the year before. It was there that McMillan developed his design and painting skills and where one of his roommates, Patrick Blackwell, taught him how to use a camera and a darkroom. After leaving Chouinard, McMillan got a job at a Los Angeles advertising agency and was able to integrate the techniques and visual language of photography into his approach as a print and packaging designer.

Photographic solutions to design problems were an important part of McMillan’s life as a commercial freelance artist and helped set his work apart from his peers in the design world. More importantly, his assignments lent much to his thinking about how photography could represent art ideas — as photography did with his design work when he shot portraits of fellow artists for their exhibition announcements and posters.

The combination of packaging and print design, as well as painting, was significant, because these influences subtly shaped his response to the graphic possibilities inherent in photography. Design has its own visual language, and the use of that particular visual language became a subtle unstated undercurrent in McMillan’s photographic process.

It’s apparent from his earliest fine art photography that McMillan was searching for a different way to think about subject matter and the format used to express it. Although he began by using familiar subjects, as exhibited in both the “Flag” and “Jan” series, his treatment of the graphic elements in those subjects was a movement toward a photography that challenged the manner of typical photographic presentation. Drips of images and cutout shapes became subjects as important as the flag or figure depicted in the photograph. They became a mark made by the hand of the artist, an idea that contradicted the typical representation of the cool, mechanical, conventional presentation common to photography before the 1960s. These early series were a new, but tentative addition to the expected traditional language of photographic presentation and representation.

Out of this rethinking about what constituted acceptable photographic representation came a rejection of the photograph as slick-surfaced, two-dimensional object. This happened in early 1962, when McMillan created his first photo-sculpture that used an image of his wife, Patty. She was pregnant with their first child, and McMillan saw her as a metaphor for a container of life. He photographed her in a room propped out with boxes. The finished print was then folded and made into a box itself, becoming a four-sided reiteration of the woman as container. This was a one-off project, a brief foray into his developing revolutionary ideas about photo-sculpture.

Throughout the early 1960s McMillan completed the “Flag,” “Jan” and “Doors and Windows” series (wherein he explored photography and the visual vocabulary of abstract painting), as well as other one-of-a-kind pieces, before making his first photo-sculpture bag in 1965. In all of the series that came before his first Bag, one can see the influences of painting and print design. Collaging on, painting on, drawing on and manipulating the surface of the photographic print during this time would form the basis of all his work to come. He says of this progression of thought, “When you work on a series you expand the idea, you make some changes.” Added to that was McMillan’s constant desire to break away from the familiar vocabulary that photography relied on, which made a photograph into the recognizable object it had been since its inception.

What he came up with in 1965 was more than a breaking away, it was a clever subversion of the idea of what constituted a photograph — a three-dimensional object that contained recognizable photographic elements, yet at the same time challenged our ability to understand it as a photograph. The tropes that we had come to rely on, that gave us a way to talk about a photograph as a photograph, were gone, deconstructed. McMillan’s creation was an elegantly designed bag that looked as if it should be misshapen due to its wrinkled surface, but whose smooth edges contradicted our visual impression of its shape.

In sum, “Wrinkled Bag” was not what a typical photograph should look like; it thwarted our expectations and robbed us of the familiar subject matter on which we depended. It forever cut loose the vocabulary that allowed us to parse a traditional photograph and instead reeducated us by opening up photography into the visual vocabulary of the general fine art world. This was a vocabulary that included: the object (sculpture), the surface (painting and sculpture), the concept (Surrealism and trompe l’oeil), and the presentation (on a pedestal).

In little time, the “Bag” series evolved as McMillian decided to place the images on the inside, using a large tear to reveal the interior and giving the viewer a way to look at the photograph. McMillan explains it this way: “The viewer represents one space, the bag represents 3-D space, and the picture inside it is a surrealistic space.”

Even though it appeared that the bag could be bought at a supermarket, it was handmade using kraft paper with the photograph affixed to its inside, each aperture carefully torn by McMillan. Further pushing the concept of this spatial illusion, he re-photographed a print of the scene through a torn sheet of kraft paper, which made it appear that the viewer was looking through the bag to a place outside, beyond. In many ways the bags expanded McMillan’s interest in space, both dimensional and photographic. Although the actual tear in the front of the bag existed only to allow the viewer to see the interior photograph, and the photographic tear on the opposite side used to create the aforementioned “surreal space,” these voids, real and illusionist, became a hallmark of McMillan’s subsequent work.

In the mid-1970s McMillan was invited to participate in a fund-raising effort for the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies (LACPS). Each artist was to donate a portfolio or series of work, and the LACPS committee asked him to produce a series of Bags. (It should be noted that the “Bag” series and others of his photo-sculptural pieces, which also used non-traditional photographic materials such as copper, chrome and brass as surfaces for imagery produced over that decade, had been criticized by the photo community as being non-photographic.

McMillan says, “Some of the debates over the work damn near came to blows. They’d say, ‘That’s not a photograph.’ And I’d say, ‘I have more steps of photography in my pieces. The difference is your photos deal with the same old stuff.’ ’’)

After much thought, McMillan decided to create a body of work that would unequivocally be a photograph yet challenge perceptions and expectations of photography’s vocabulary of the “existing” and “familiar.” He says, “Why is it that I think that all this work looked alike? Well, as I looked at photography (I’m not a photo historian), I thumbed through a bunch of Sotheby’s catalogues, and all the photos looked alike, but when you look at painting you see a lot of change from figurative to abstraction and pure abstraction. Could photography also deal with non-objective abstraction?”

McMillan’s question about pure photographic abstraction was answered by his use of geometric shapes — a circle, square and triangle — as the subjects of the photograph. But instead of photographing preexisting shapes, he cut them out of paper. The geometric form was a flat surface metamorphosing out of the wrinkled area surrounding it, or he wrinkled the circle, square or triangle, leaving the surrounding paper flat, and then photographed the result.

McMillan’s concept was to use the camera strictly as a tool to compress three-dimensional space into two-dimensional space. Furthermore, by using geometric shapes he subverted our ability to perceive the scale of the object, which robbed the shape of any meaning — if a square, circle or triangle had any meaning in the first place. The subject matter was space, and the perception of that space, going between dimensional and flat, depended on the viewer’s distance from the photograph. Added to that was the void left behind the cutout shape.

It’s interesting to think of the two-dimensional surface of the photograph (shape and paper) as floating over a black, featureless void, which McMillan describes as “…a metaphor for endless, invisible space.” The play between the active wrinkled surface and the deep black behind the cutout created a subtle visual tension. The void was a visual place to which most photographs never alluded, indeed couldn’t allude to because they were dealing with subject matter that was a documentary representation of life. The ensuing series became another expansion of photography’s visual language; they were undeniably photographs, but merely of shapes that oscillated between graphic space and photographic space, nothing more.

The LACPS portfolio was a turning point in McMillan’s work. For the past 30 years he has used the camera to explore nuances of photographic space by adding drawing, painting and dimensional objects. Other photographic artists, like Francis Bruguiére, Frederick Sommer and Heinecken, have touched upon some of these ideas. But none have gone so far, or been so relentless in questioning the fundamental axioms of photography: a photograph must have a two-dimensional surface, a photograph must exist as a matted framed object.

McMillan’s work constantly pushes us to recognize that a photograph can consist of ideas as much as visuals, that a photograph can be as abstract as any painting, and that the visible hand of the artist (“…as a way of remaking it into an organic as opposed to a mechanical medium”) is as important to a photograph as it is to any other piece of art.

His first Bag and all the series that followed have been artworks that confront our historic and thus preconceived ideas about what a photograph should be or say. More than that, McMillan has expanded photography’s visual vocabulary by giving us unfamiliar subjects that come from our intellect rather than an oft-repeated photographic representation of the world outside our windows.

Fact File
Jerry McMillan is represented by the Craig Krull Gallery Santa Monica, California. ( A book on his work, titled Jerry McMillan (essay by Steven Peckman), was published by California State University, Northridge in 2012, and is available through CSUN and the Krull Gallery, which kindly supplied images for this article.

Photo 1 Photo 3 Photo 5 Photo 7 Photo 9 Photo 11
Untitled, Jan Series, 1963