Family of Man’s Special Delivery

It took three generations to produce Wayne F. Miller’s photograph of his newborn son

Newborn David B. Miller had the company of his mother (covered by sheets), grandfather (masked) and photographer father. (Wayne F. Miller)
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"Steichen got us all together once," says Miller, "and we never met as a group after that. We had complete carte blanche to use military transportation, to go anywhere and photograph anything." But Steichen, while making extraordinary photographs himself, kept his eye on what the others were doing. "Steichen was a father figure to me," Miller says. "He was a fascinating teacher, never criticizing, always encouraging." On the wall of Miller's studio is a photograph of his mentor, late in his life, bending down over a potted redwood seedling in his Connecticut greenhouse.

The young officer saw plenty of action at sea and made an impressive contribution to Steichen's memorable project. (He is the last of the group still living.) But he also has fond recollections of going to Brazil to photograph a mine that provided most of the quartz crystals for military radios: the U.S. chargé d'affaires said he couldn't take pictures of the facility, "so for the next three weeks I was forced to spend most of the day on the beach," he says with a smile, "and most of the night partying."

In the Pacific, Miller learned to light tight situations aboard ship simply by holding a flashbulb at arm's length. This proved to be just the right approach in the delivery room when his son was born. Steichen, who became director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City after the war, organized "The Family of Man"—with Miller's help—as an appeal for cross-cultural understanding. It was Steichen who chose Miller's picture. "He had a tremendous feeling of awe about pregnancy and procreation," Miller says. "He was in love with every pregnant woman."

Most of the photographs in "The Family of Man" gained some measure of immortality, but the picture of the brand-new Miller baby may have the longest life of all. A panel led by the astronomer Carl Sagan included it in the things to be carried forever into the vastness of space aboard the two Voyager spacecraft. In Sagan's book Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record, the picture is described simply as "Birth."

Owen Edwards, a former exhibition critic for American Photographer, is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

About Owen Edwards
Owen Edwards

Owen Edwards is a freelance writer who previously wrote the "Object at Hand" column in Smithsonian magazine.

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