If you've been in New York City on Ash Wednesday, you've likely spotted someone with a cross-shaped smudge of ash on their forehead. For some secular individuals, it's a strange sight that turns heads in confusion. Many know little about this religious practice, which marks the first day of Lent in Western Christianity, beyond what they see on the surface.
On Ash Wednesday for the past twenty years, Greg Miller has carried his hulking 8x10 film camera throughout New York City to make street portraits of those who participate in this ritual. In some images, subjects look directly back at the viewer, confronting our inquiry head-on. In others, people pause and gaze off - sunlight or shadows drench them with metaphor.
In advance of his twenty first Ash Wednesday shoot, Miller and I spoke about his work and upcoming book (which you can pre-order HERE.)
Interview by Jon Feinstein
Jon Feinstein: I have to be honest, I’m a little jealous of this project - it’s something I’ve wanted to do for years, but never got it together. How did it begin?
Greg Miller: As a street photographer, I have always been energized by the randomness of people passing me on the streets of New York. This includes the different religions that can be seen. It was common for me to go out, walking around looking for pictures. It just so happened that February 12, 1997, was one of those days. But, unlike other days, I noticed people had smudges of ashes on their foreheads. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I know I asked one of them why. You can’t otherwise identify Catholics, except on Ash Wednesday. It’s a day that they reveal themselves. That encounter began this odyssey of photographing Ash Wednesday every year for twenty years.
Feinstein: These are typological, yet incredibly intimate portraits. Tell me about your approach.
Miller: People maybe assume I park my camera in front of St. Patrick’s cathedral-like Channel 7 news, but I feel that would be cheating. Before I began photographing with an 8x10 camera I would walk around photographing with a Leica. After switching to the bigger camera I didn’t want to lose the walking around part. Things passing me is a big part of my visual process also, I need the background behind the person to change.
I’ll take the train to midtown and start walking early on Ash Wednesday, around 8 am. I might head toward St. Patrick’s, but usually I will see someone that makes me want to stop before I get there. When I see someone with ashes that interests me, I will go up to them and tell them I am working on a book and that I would like to photograph them. Most of the time they say yes. Every year a few say no. Usually because of time, but who knows what the real reason is: self-consciousness, privacy.
Early on I was excited just to find someone with ashes, but that quickly became boring so I made a rule for myself that the people I stopped must be people that I might stop if they had no ashes. They need to be interesting first and just happen to have ashes on their foreheads.
Feinstein: You're shooting entirely 8x10 – why is this important to this series?
Miller: Not a day goes by, photographing on the street with an 8x10 camera, that someone does not ask, “why are you using this camera?”
I could explain that the optics of the large lens casting an image on the large surface of the film has a way of humanizing the subject, like an optical embrace, or I could talk about how people seem to melt when photographed by the large wooden camera.
I could also talk about how I am still in love with the camera after all this time and how it feels like an extension of my body. But in the end, the only real reason I use the 8x10 camera is that it’s beautiful. But this project benefits from the fact that Ash Wednesday is about a reckoning with one’s own mortality; I use this slow heavy camera because it constantly reminds me that I am human. I really feel its weight, it deprives me of speed and it sometimes pinches me. I suffer a little and at the end of the day, I know I am here.
Feinstein: Your work treads a line between documentary and something remarkably meditative.
Miller: I don’t think I am a very good documentarian. If someone wanted to learn more about Roman Catholicism or Ash Wednesday, I don’t think these pictures tell the whole story. I think this series speaks to pursuing one’s faith and our desire to be better people. Within that, on this one day a year, people have the opportunity to accept themselves as they are, with all of their imperfections. I have actually resisted the temptation to make this more about Ash Wednesday and its religious significance.
The publisher, L’Artiere, to their credit have allowed it to remain this meditative inquiry. Having said that, I am aware that the Lenten season leading up to Easter is a time of deep introspection and a very holy season of the year for Roman Catholics and other practicing Christians. I am at once grateful and indebted to the individuals who stopped and allowed me to photograph them and my hope is that I have made, above all, a respectful portrait of them as well as the day itself.
Feinstein: While this work explores a certain marking, a focus on the aesthetic representation of religion, I sense your personal fascination goes a bit deeper.
Miller: My primary interest in Ash Wednesday was the visual juxtaposition of the contemporary with the ancient. I encounter my subjects on their way to an important meeting or running to catch a train, meanwhile, they wear the mark of an ancient ritual. And it’s a tangible reminder itself that we are mortal, human and that speed and efficiency are not everything.
But there is a deeper connection for me. My grandfather was a Methodist minister but died unexpectedly when I was 1 year old. The grief of his death affected my family’s outlook on the church. While my grandmother continued to attend church regularly, my parents all but stopped going. Even my grandmother, who was the most religious person I had known, said that my grandfather's death had shaken her faith.
Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and Christian mystic once said—and I am paraphrasing because I can’t find the exact quote—that people don’t receive their ashes because they are perfect, they receive their ashes because they are imperfect.
Personally, I struggle to have faith in anything beyond what I can see with my own eyes. Standing on the street, face to face, with my subjects, from devout to wavering, used to make me feel like I was missing something. But as my grandmother inadvertently taught me, having faith is not a prerequisite to practicing your faith. This basic principle has brought me closer to the people I photograph and given me a greater understanding of why we practice a faith.
Feinstein: Are you a religious person?
Miller: This is the hardest question because I do feel like an outsider since most, if not all of the people in this book are Catholic (although I have never asked). However, being an outsider does not preclude one from photographing a subject matter. While I am not Catholic, and not a practicing Christian for that matter, the Lenten season still has meaning to me. Christians typically observe Lent by fasting. Many will give up something for Lent, such as ice cream, beer or Facebook. But this season is meant as a time of introspection and repentance.
I think it’s important to reflect on what Thomas Merton described as the “secret beauty in our hearts.” My hope is that we see ourselves not for what we look like or how much money we have, but because we are marvelously imperfect.
Feinstein: What are the roots of the title: "Unto Dust"?
Miller: When administering ashes, the priest smudges ash on a person’s forehead and will say different variations of: “Remember that you are dust and to dust, you shall return.” This comes from the book of Genesis where, for Christians, the inevitability of mortality and the possibility of salvation is established. In the King James Version, “to dust” is “unto dust.” I liked that better.
Feinstein: A book seems like a natural culmination of the project. How did it come to fruition?
Miller: I met the publishers, Gianluca and Gianmarco Gamberini of L’Aritere, in 2015 at Paris Photo. I was very impressed with their books by Andrea Modica, Larry Fink, and others so I kept in touch. Almost 2 years later they let me know they were interested in publishing Unto Dust.
Feinstein: Did anything change over those two decades? Did the pictures change?
Miller: A lot has changed in the world, but I have tried to make the photographs look like they were all made on the same day. The combination of the ancient and the modern is always there; it’s only a little different over the years and you can see it in the details. One of my favorite pictures from all the years is one I took last year in 2017. It is a woman in a faux fur coat who wrapped her Apple earphones around her hand like rosary beads.
Since this series is only one day a year, the work represents only 20 days but it has taken me 20 years to make the work. The thing that has changed the most over the years is me. Since I started this project, my wife and I got married, our two daughters were born, we have moved 4 times and luckily we are still married. This series has felt like a marriage.
I stumbled upon the idea, I got lucky, I fell in love with it, I have had a life with it, it talks back to me and, at times it’s been hard. As I mentioned before, I am grateful to the people that had the courage to be photographed by me over the years and to the people, friends and colleagues, who have been supporters of it. Now, I have a deep love for this project that I can’t quite describe other than to say I am happy that I showed up.
Feinstein: Are you still making these pictures?
MIller: I am! I plan to go out February 14 - it’s on Valentine’s day this year.
There is an added pressure of photographing the last time before the book comes out, but I am excited at the possibilities. It’s hard to imagine what the day will bring, but I am always pleasantly surprised.