Joseph Mills: Inner City
From surreal photocollage imaginings of a world gone wrong to documentary street scenes, Joseph Mills’ images and pictorial objects of the last twenty-five years alternate between shock and pathos, between black humor and existential dread. His series Inner City, on view here, chronicles downtown Washington, DC in the 1980s during a period of urban transition.
Wielding his camera surreptitiously, often shooting from the hip, Mills focused on the physical decay of the buildings and streets and on uneasy encounters between black and white, young and old, the middle class and the destitute. The resulting images transcend conventional documentary expression: they seem envisioned rather than recorded, emblematic of a psychic state as much as a specific place or historical moment. Inner City traces a symbiosis between the city's inhabitants and their environment, unflinchingly depicting mental illness, physical ailments, alcoholism, and poverty as integral components of urban life. Scars and birthmarks, braces and wheelchairs, malformed and phantom limbs, crumpled trash, and missing shoes evoke the emotional states and marginalization of those who inhabit an all-too-real nightmare. But hope is also present in Mills’ vision. Like exotic flowers growing in a burnt forest, children stand serenely apart from the tension and decrepitude that surrounds them. An odd grace registers in the softly glowing highlights of the photographs.
One reason for the empathy found in these pictures is the artist’s own experience with mental illness. At twenty-one Mills was institutionalized for a period, treated for a condition he once termed “seamless paranoid delusion.” Though significantly recovered from those depths, he was intermittently afflicted during the years he photographed in the streets. With little objective distance, Mills could never approach the city or its inhabitants from the traditional safe remove of the observer. Torn between his affinity for the people he photographed and his dread of a fate he narrowly avoided, Mills registered this world as if he himself stood in its shadows.
In the 1990s Mills stopped photographing downtown Washington. It became too painful, he has said, to witness the disintegrating lives of the homeless and the ennui of those who seemed locked into their workday routines. In 1999 Mills happened on a batch of expired photographic paper and decided to use it to revisit the streets. He edited a group of about 100 images, selected from his many accumulated negatives. Made at disparate places and times, these pictures acquired new meaning within a visual and symbolic narrative.
The physical presence of these pictures contributes to their collective impact. The oxidizing silver emulsion of Mills’ outdated photographic paper darkened at the edges and yielded a startling array of colors and surface flaws. He enhanced these effects by applying multiple layers of furniture varnish. Shiny, hardened, yellowing, the photographs have become discolored artifacts, memorializing their subjects the way amber encases pieces of history for posterity. Mills mounts some photographs on castoff material, such as fragments of furniture, splintered plywood, even a suitcase lid. These objects seem formed from an intense reaction, as if memories had melted directly onto pieces of the downtown environment.
The harrowing path through this inner city of litter-filled streets and crumbling buildings is a psychological journey: urban byways have become back alleys of the human mind. Mills' pictures and objects are imprinted with the hope and desperation of the people whose lives pass before his lens. Like psychic shrapnel, these are the scattered images of an aftermath—haunting reminders of the world we make.
– Paul Roth, Associate Curator of Photography andMedia Arts, Corcoran Gallery of Art
This exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Frances L. Fralin (1933-2003).
Joseph Mills: Inner City was made possible through the generous support of Animation and Images of New York, Inc., Antennae LLC, Mr. and Mrs. Gil Ferrer, Mr. and Mrs. John Safer, the Honorable Melvin R. Laird and Mrs. Carole Laird, Ann and Don Brown, Carole Greenwood, Phyllis McGovern, and Barrick Gaming Corporation.