Messianic Confessions

Photography 1973-79

1973: PHOTOGRAPHY. About this time, in 1973, I accidentally entered a new profession. I had often thought of writing but my wife never encouraged it. While manning a booth at a big outdoor recreational convention in Anaheim for the mountaineering company as its California sales rep, I was asked by a new backpacking magazine to write an article on rock climbing. I accepted this assignment and produced such an article. However, I was told they needed photos also. I said I knew nothing of the camera. Indeed, anything mechanic I always avoided. They stressed their need and I sought a way. I knew someone with cameras and got him to loan me them with basic instruction. I knew where a major free climb was going to be attempted on Suicide Rock. I went there, met a young man who was to become a famous free climber, Tobin Sorenson (later to die tragically in Canada). I then climbed onto a precarious position to photograph one of the first 5.11 climbs in the country. During the climb, I took both black and white as well as color photos. At one moment Tobin fell forty feet and I captured the fall perfectly.

By the time I got the photos back to the magazine it had folded! So, I thought to redo them with various articles and submit them to climbing magazines around the world. Several published my work, one running a cover photo, and another a 12 page photo essay in black and white on the intensity of this climb. That started my introduction into photography.

First, I did articles with photos for Modern Maturity and Ford Truck Times but discovered I had an unknown talent for graphic color photography. My wife was not enthusiastic about this new interest, and I was to realize later it was because 1975 was approaching and the world, along with photography, would be over soon. She had, unknown to me, told my children not to worry about school because they would never finish. Obviously this was to have a powerful affect on my children.

My first color magazine cover appeared in the September 1973 issue of Bicycling magazine, and the next month on the cover of the Irvine company magazine, New Worlds, the Balboa Bay Club journal Bay Window, and the cover of Carte Blanche magazine. For years thereafter I was to have at least one color cover of a magazine somewhere in the country. I quit the cleaning and mountaineering businesses and began to devote full time to photography. Soon I was known well throughout Orange County, then California, then the United States. I was to win many awards in the magazine, advertising, and graphic arts industry. I was commanding day rates of $2,000 and had my own assistant, a personal friend, Tim Wilson, who was later to travel with me on far ranging corporate and magazine assignments. Tim would go on to become a photographer working at the JW world headquarters in New York. Little did I suspect our 20 year friendship would one day end.

Orange Coast magazine was to name me among the “most prestigious photographers in Orange County.” Status Newport Art Gallery was to describe my one man sow: “Mr. Miller picked up the camera as an art and communicative tool for the first time in 1973. Color abstractive and conceptual images are his particular interests, but there are many sides to his visions of the world – ranging from “purist” and soft natural pastels to bold and eye-wrenching graphics. It was the graphic images that first attracted magazine editors and art directors. Many commercial assignments, regional and national awards of merit, one man shows, speaking and teaching requests followed. In the five years he has used the camera, he has averaged one magazine cover per month. His work has been published widely and it is safe to say that most people have seen his work in one place or another without realizing.”

New Worlds magazine, the official organ of the Irvine Company and Fashion Island, introduced a photographic portfolio: “Catch him if you can. Between trips to China, air-to-air photographic flights over Southern California, fashion shoots, field photography just about anywhere. Mark Miller of Corona del Mar has developed a creative style that is markedly his own. His images, including multiple exposures, are completed and completely right in the camera. He has been a contributor to New Worlds since the early Seventies, and his pictures in the magazine have received numerous awards.”

Regarding air-to-air photography I had an experience 10,000 feet over Los Angeles while hanging feet first out of an airplane taking pictures of a new turbo-prop commercial airliner. I had been strapped in by the normal rigging usually employed. The hatch had been removed and at one moment, feet dangling, I was hanging out with several Nikons when the rigging broke. I would have had plenty of time to think about it all while I fell right on top of a big freeway interchange. As fate will have it, there was something that caused me to back up the airline’s rigging with some of my own mountaineering equipment. I had been told that would not be necessary and some what jeered for “overdoing it.” You have no idea how that feels in the pit of the stomach when you hear the sound of buckles unsnapping.

I was to develop quite a personal file of what are called “stock photos” for royalty licensing with various agents around the country, Europe and Japan. I discovered I preferred shooting for myself, therefore, avoiding the rat race of corporate assignments with many features which contradicted the lifestyle of a JW. I did some fashion shoots and was often around very beautiful models who were quite willing to do anything to get their picture taken. Never did I take advantage of a woman though I may have been alone with her on some beach in a foreign country or in her own home or a studio. Many were doing cocaine at the time and they would have been quite susceptible. In part because I had the reputation of a gentleman many came to me for their portfolios because I treated them with respect.

A book on stock photography in America listed the 100 most published stock photos and of these two were those of Mark Miller. My most recognized and well-known photo is called “Footprints in the Sand” with an accompanying inspirational verse. It continues to appear in a variety of media and many people have it hanging on their walls. [There are photographic samples at the Friends of the Nazarene web page.]

I took up the martial arts again, though privately among other, mostly black JWs. For surely it would have been looked upon with disdain. There must have been considerable interest in self-defense, for later articles came out in the Watchtower highly critical of it. As a result of my own interest I was to help produce a book of photos called the Art of Karate in which I worked with one of Hollywood’s well-know martial arts experts, Tak Kobuto, who was to go on to appear in numerous films and commercials. I got very deep into these Asian arts and stopped them when I could knock a degree black belt on his back without touching him! I was aware of that cosmic power chi and I had learned to project it in an instant. I also believed their were dark forces about in the universe, in the form of spirits and demons. Though I did not personally fear them, I realized I had crossed the line. I immediately withdrew from any further involvement with the martial arts.

1974: PRESSURES. So, I had on the one hand photographic business interests, as well as enormous pressures from the congregations, with its attendant infighting, all causing more and more stress on me. I longed when I could get away, to travel into wilderness areas, or high mountains, to spend weeks photographing nature, with my assistant and personal friend. Little did I know, as 1975 came and went without the end of the world, that my children were getting deeper and deeper into that growing drug culture in Newport and Laguna Beach. Between their own unspoken disappointments with 1975 and their exposure to an underground culture among JW youths, the outcome should have been predictable. My own inattention to them, with the pressures of business and congregation, added to the problem.

My oldest daughter was to fall victim first. Her life would crumble into despair following reports of child abuse by someone near our family. My daughter underwent hypnotic therapy by one woman who was later exposed for implanting ideas of abuse in the minds of her subjects. Because of this hypnotic treatment for a long time my own daughter accused me to others. She became convinced for awhile by a male hating doctor that all her problems with drugs were due to my sexual abuse of her. But, before God, no such thing ever happened. I had prayed to God that if I was guilty of such a thing I did not deserve to live anywhere in His universe. This slander spread among JWs and as late as 1995 was still current gossip, particularly in the Newport Beach congregation.

My two boys were to “leave the truth” as it were and experiment with the drug culture and other behavior discouraged by JWs. Though both were to return later and go through an entirely different experience, that is a later story.

My oldest son was to be involved in a well publicized “blood transfusion” case when he was struck by a car while skateboarding in Corona Del Mar. The affair hit all the papers. My son’s spleen was ruptured and we were told he needed a blood transfusion. I cannot describe what this matter puts a JW family through, not only personally, but publicly. Hundreds of people showed up at Hoag Hospital to give their support as JWs do in these matters. Tremendous pressures were brought to bear by police, doctors and finally judges. My son was taken away from us by the state. Our surgeon, Morris Fier, respected our stand though not agreeing with it. He was able to do the surgery without blood though he was under court injunction to do so if needed. I have to respect this doctor for his bravery. My son survived to return to good health.

1979: CHINA. I had turned 40 and was now invited by Peter Gruber and Jon Peters to travel to China to do pre-production photography for what would finally become The Last Emperor. It was 1979 and China was opening up following Nixon’s trip. I was among the first photographers to be given such wide range throughout China. We visited Hong Kong, Canton, Beijing, Chengtu, Soochow, Shanghai. We followed primitive dirt tracks back into the Panda preserves on the Tibetan border. I was the first to photograph the hundreds of life-size terra-cotta army which had recently been unearthed. I returned with quite a file on China and these were put to work among my many agents.

The former president of Amnesty International and his wife, as well as director Jeremy Thomas, writer Lionel Chetwyn, and production manager, Marty Fink filled out the group under the lead of my good friend, Terry Corley, a JW formerly of Fresno. Terry had been a Gilead graduate and served as a JW missionary in Taiwan where he mastered Chinese. He was a good friend and we were to later form a stock-photography business together in Irvine.

This experience in China was to make a long-lasting impression on me. There were big government banquets with VIPs in the Chinese film community and much toasting to gulps of Asian fire-water, mao-tai, to the call, “Gombay!” The JW elder who I accompanied on this excursion had told me one reason he brought me was my amazing ability to “hold my liquor.” After the first banquet in Beijing one of the Chinese had an interpreter tell me: “We have a saying when it comes to how many toasts a man can handle: the king. You, sir, are the king.” This was to be repeated a dozen times or more throughout thousands of miles touring China.

On this trip the Chinese equivalent to John Wayne, Fu Chi, after weeks of association, and many scores of “gombay” shots of moa-tai, asked me why I was able to get along with everyone and showed a completely different attitude toward the Chinese than some of the others. I told him: “We live on one planet. Therefore, we are all brothers. I view all peoples as my brothers, none higher or lower.” This must have struck a chord with a life-long communist.

Any man turning 40 goes through his own new struggles as his age begins to show, his health may take a turn, and he doubts his mortality. There were those ongoing marital problems which I will not describe but something in the Spring of 1980 caused me to snap and I became suicidal. I only know now what caused this: the pressures of work, the terrible relationships among local elders, my own health, creeping doubts, and certain frictions in my marriage. I planned to commit suicide.

Nazarene Commentary 2000

Mark Heber Miller

2000 All Rights Reserved