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Planner's View of L.A. Catches Arts Panel's Eye : Urban design: The photos are the culmination of more than 25 years of exploring the 'built environment.'


Gurdon Miller pulled out the large black-and-white photos that sometimes keep him up until 3 in the morning at his Sierra Madre home--images of barren downtown streets, graffiti-loaded warehouses, telephone poles and parked cars.

"I think it's beautiful," he said of one image of an abandoned laundry building. His words poured out anxiously, rapidly: "I'm not kidding. I really think it's beautiful."

For Miller, 45, a Los Angeles city planner, the photos are the culmination of more than 25 years of exploring what he calls the "built environment," or the Earth as modified by human action.

The photos also represent his entry into the world of art photography. In April, Miller was one of three photographers selected to display their work at the Los Angeles Arts Council's "Catch a Rising Artist" art auction at the Bel Age Hotel in West Hollywood. He hopes to parlay that exposure into representation at a gallery and recognition of the uniqueness of his vision and product.

"What I'm doing with a picture is sort of analogous to atonal structures (in music), in the sense that the structure is important and the composition is important," Miller said. "There aren't 10 photographers in Los Angeles who are taking better (pictures) than this in terms of the camera, film, development and knowledge."

The urban emphasis of his photos seems paradoxical for Miller, with his hiker's attire of faded work shirts and khaki pants, his treehouse-like home in Sierra Madre Canyon, his work on Sierra Madre's hillside development ordinance, and his memberships in the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club.

Yet it is a natural outgrowth of artistic pursuits that began in his youth in the San Gabriel Valley. Miller grew up in El Monte and painted practically nonstop from childhood. So engrossed was he in painting, he said, that after his family had gone to bed at night, he would snap on his bedroom closet light and surreptitiously paint all night inside the closet.

During his high school years, his realistic landscapes and watercolored pen-and-ink sketches sold easily "because they were pretty and people liked them," he said.

But when he saw the huge, Abstract Expressionist canvases of American artist Clyfford Still, he was overwhelmed.

"It was the beginning of changing the way I see things," he said.

Miller studied Abstract Expressionism while obtaining an art degree at UC Berkeley and continued to paint abstract canvases while working as a city planner. But as he took photos for his planning jobs, he realized that he could create with photography the shapes he was abstracting from landscapes.

"Why bother (with painting), when you can go straight to the source?" Miller said. "As a painter I was always trying to explain to people why I had no content or why the content was so rarefied."

Largely self-taught as a photographer, Miller uses the zone system pioneered by Ansel Adams, in which different objects to be photographed are measured by a light meter to arrive at an exposure that will deliver the broadest range of lights and darks. But where Adams used the techniques to produce stunningly beautiful landscapes, Miller employs them to catch the sometimes ungainly shapes of the urban environment.

A photo like "Friendship Store," taken in Little Tokyo, may seem to be a random shot of an empty street. But Miller explained that it is dense with compositional elements, such as the contrast of a white, square sign against the dark, recessed squares of the building's windows; the parallel shapes of windowpanes and glass brick, and the satisfyingly rough texture of brick.

"Just as with an Abstract Expressionist painting, your eye dances around," he said.

Miller is equally passionate about the techniques he employs to produce his photos. For years, he used a 35-millimeter camera and took thousands of slides of buildings and city streets, incorporating some of them into slide shows that he occasionally presents to other city planners.

But only rarely did he produce a photo that he considered aesthetically pleasing. So, he switched to the bulky view camera he now uses to obtain sharper images and produce large pictures, measuring up to 16 by 20 inches.

Taking such photos is a painstaking process, Miller said. He will spend an hour setting up his camera on the tripod, finding the view he wants, metering the shot and, finally, waiting for the wind to stop blowing and the street to clear of people and cars so that he can snap the 15-second exposure.

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