Face to Face  01.16.14 - Tom Millea

Tom Millea considers his photo book featuring palm trees and leaves, The Book of Palms, his defining work of spiritual dimension.

Tom Millea thinks he’s the most shunned photographer on the Peninsula. He might be right. Since the 1960s, he’s shown from Maryland to Switzerland, the Smithsonian to Weston Gallery. His work resides in New York’s MOMA and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. But he says he hasn’t been able to get a local show since 1998’s solo shows at Monterey Museum of Art and Winfield Gallery. That ends this weekend. He has a solo show at Carmel Visual Arts in the Barnyard, opening 6-8pm this Saturday, followed by an artist talk and book signing 3-4pm this Sunday.

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What have been your favorite moments looking back?

I’ve worked in series. Many different series over the decades. Each series a facet of a diamond. I could never see the whole. I’m 69 now and I’m finally able to see the whole. It’s pretty big.

How would you describe it?

A spiritual journey toward consciousness.

What sense have you made out of the work thus far?

There’s three groups [of photographs] in this show. Carmel Valley was the first series I did in the 1970s. It’s about feeling trapped, trying to find a larger reality. I did that by making pictures of my front yard, the fences. I moved to Death Valley, which is nothing but space. I spent two years trying to photograph nothing. I came back to Carmel, did several other series. Some would take years, some would take 30 minutes.

It’s been a long time since you’ve shown here. Why is that?

My work doesn’t fit into the kind of work that’s here. It doesn’t look like Ansel Adams. [Galleries] find it very hard to sell. Galleries want you to make one kind of picture they can sell over and over. And I don’t do that. Politically, I’m persona non grata here.

Why is that?

They don’t like me. They say I’m a pornographer. The Lady and the Glass Booth, another series, took place in an adult theater [in San Francisco]. The glass of the booth is what everyone has in their lives that keeps us from being intimate. The whole essay is about intimacy, not pornography. I’m too difficult to deal with. People don’t understand my work. Or just don’t like it.

Do you intimidate people?

I’m extremely shy. That comes across as intimidating or aggressive. On the other side is the desire for purity in my work. I don’t want my photos reproduced on coffee mugs.

Was that suggested?

Yeah. Ha. I was taught by Paul Caponigro and Edward Steichen. They believed there’s a purity to what we do, it has meaning. And that gets lost in the gallery world. Even in the museum world.

You started a blog, but there’s only one post, Oct. 1, 2011. Why is that?

I became very sick and almost died. I’m on oxygen. I’m tied to a tube, whatever I do, wherever I go.

What effect do you want your show to have?

(Sighs.) I hope [people] open up their hearts. I hope they’re confused. I hope they wonder about the mystery of [the photographs]. I hope they start asking questions of themselves. I hope [they] stand there with their mouths open.

Have you mentored others?

I’ve offered. No one has taken me up.

Do you associate with other local photographers?

No, I don’t. We’re doing very different kinds of work.

And I don’t agree with their philosophies. I’m not interested in photography or art that is representational. Any great art will aspire beyond that. I’m not saying my work is great art, but I’m aspiring to it.

What do you hope your legacy will be?

To show people a direction to travel on their path through life, show people a way toward consciousness. There are 6 billion ways there. Every generation needs its own map.

Walter Ryce has been an arts writer, calendar editor, culture columnist, sometime photographer, and one-time web content coordinator for the Monterey County Weekly. He began working at the paper, which is based in his hometown of Seaside, in 2007.

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