- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Joe Mills walked the streets of Washington in the 1980s photographing the city's underclass its children, street prophets, panhandlers, amputees, homeless and mentally ill. The photographer, 51, gathered these marginal figures together and placed them at the center of his photos and the center of urban life.Much later, in 1999, Mr. Mills stumbled upon a box of unexposed, long-expired photo paper containing negatives of the work. He decided to explore what was then buried history and developed 75 of the images.
Mr. Mills' special empathy for the down-and-out, especially for the mentally ill (he suffered through his own mental illness), is on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in "Joseph Mills: Inner City," a selection of 60 photos and 13 "photo objects" curated by Paul Roth, the gallery's assistant curator of photography and media arts.
"Mostly you see individuals, and it's because I see their condition, and I try to see myself in them. I'm trying to work out something inside of me," Mr. Mills says.
The awkward collision of different Washingtons black and white, middle-class and poverty-stricken, young and old forms a recurring motif. The photo of a poor black man bumming a cigarette from a young white office worker is particularly effective. The black indigent looks away, possibly because of shame, but holds out his fingers. The white man, with a supercilious look of disgust, gingerly holds the cigarette he is about to give. In his carefully pressed business suit, just-right tie and thin briefcase, he is the representative yuppie of his day. Only the man's sour expression spoils his act of charity.
Mr. Mills usually shot from the hip with a 35 mm camera; his subjects never knew they were being photographed. He photographed from unusual angles and focused on peoples' legs and feet, hands and arms for emotional expression. One image showing the lower part of a black woman's leg, her foot and toes is especially repulsive. Growths ooze from her forward leg. Long, pointed toenails grow from deformed toes.
The photographer enlarges for expressive effect the hand of a man sleeping on a sidewalk. Enormous fingers jut out, as if to grab us. In another "photo object," a single wrinkled black hand shoots across a photo mounted on a paint-spattered and rusted gray enamel backing. Mr. Mills must have studied Rembrandt, the first to enlarge hands for emotional effect, for these powerful portrayals.
Mr. Mills has a similar aesthetic fascination for feet of all kinds. He caught a man with legs spread-eagled on a park bench, his feet showing through the soles of his shoes. He shot a woman in a miniskirt with a fashionable shoulder bag and backless high-heeled and toeless shoes. In an image of two women and a girl on a bus, he zeroed in on the youngster's white shoes and socks.
In a singular photo picturing despair, Mr. Mills sets a man, alone, in the corner of a cafe. The man silently buries his head in his hands on the table. Who says despair has to be noisy?
Somehow, in the midst of these images of poverty and despair, childhood innocence is preserved. A little girl in a white sundress decorated with a watermelon cutout looks out at us. Carefully coifed hair, hoop earrings and sturdy sandals complete her appealing appearance.
In a picture of a group of black women, a child is carefully and probably expensively dressed in a white organza dress, nice sandals and grown-up sunglasses.
Although single photographs are the best images here, Mr. Mills likes to think of his photos as "objects," artifacts that reproduce the intensity of what he saw. The photographer found that the expired paper yielded surprising colors, tonalities and striations. He intensified the effect by applying furniture varnish to the photographs to give them a historic and dreamlike feel. He often mounts them on found objects, such as lumber, suitcase lids and aluminum sheeting.
The images in this extraordinary exhibition are unified by a disturbing and debatable message: We are a disposable society that throws away things and people. "He is making an explicit connection between the discarded artifacts and actual lives that are essentially discarded and marginalized," Mr. Roth says.
Mr. Mills took these photos about 20 years ago. Sadly, if he were to extend the series today, he would find far too many similar scenes, littered with far too many similarly wasted lives.

"Joseph Mills: Inner City"
Corcoran Gallery of Art, 17th Street and New York Avenue NW
10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Tuesday, until 9 p.m. Thursday. Exhibit closes April 14.
$5 adults, $8 families, $3 seniors and member guests, $1 for students with valid IDs.

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