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From the series Unto Dust, 2012.

How time flies.  Feels like yesterday I was heading out to photograph on Ash Wednesday and now this weekend will be Easter and the beginning of Passover.

This year’s Ash Wednesday was maybe my best ever. For those of you visiting this blog for the first time, this year is my 15th year photographing towards my series Unto Dust, portraits of people that have received ashes on Ash Wednesday in midtown Manhattan. You can catch up on the back story from last year’s post here and more from previous year’s images on my website here.

I am often overwhelmed by the generosity of strangers when I am shooting on the street. That New Yorkers (and some out -of-towners) will stop and allow me the 5-10 minutes it takes to make a picture always astounds me. I was recently moved by Thomas Merton’s “Louisville epiphany” in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander: Merton was a practising Trappist monk who one day realized that there is no separate special world of the holy:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers[…]Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts[…]the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed[…]I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”

When I read this I was taken aback by how closely his connection to “total strangers” aligns with how I feel towards the people I meet on the street when I am photographing. I think Thomas Merton could have been a street photographer! My hope on this 15th anniversary of my project is that people can look at this work and, regardless of religion, see themselves and their neighbors with more compassion.

From the series Unto Dust, 2012

From the series Unto Dust, 2012.

From the series Unto Dust, 2012.

From the series Unto Dust, 2012.

From the series Unto Dust, 2012.

From the series Unto Dust, 2012.

From the series Unto Dust, 2012.

I was accompanied again this year by my friend and photographer Amy Skinner who documented the day. Many thanks to Amy, NPR Picture Show blog and the TIME tumblr blog both for featuring the project last month. And as always I am grateful to the two dozen or so people who were willing subjects this year.

photograph by Amy Skinner

Photograph by Amy Skinner

All images unless otherwise noted © Greg Miller

From the series, Unto Dust. 2011.

I am heading out to shoot.  I leave you with this.


by TS Eliot

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?
Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us
Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.
Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying
Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.
Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.
At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitul face of hope and of despair.
At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jagged, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an aged shark.
At the first turning of the third stair
Was a slotted window bellied like the figs’s fruit
And beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene
The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green
Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair;
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mind over the third stair,
Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair
Climbing the third stair.
Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
but speak the word only.
Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary’s colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolour
Who moved among the others as they walked,
Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the springs
Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand
In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary’s colour,
Sovegna vos
Here are the years that walk between, bearing
Away the fiddles and the flutes, restoring
One who moves in the time between sleep and waking, wearing
White light folded, sheathing about her, folded.
The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.
The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke no word
But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken
Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew
And after this our exile
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.
O my people, what have I done unto thee.
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice
Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose
O my people, what have I done unto thee.
Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.
O my people.
Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn
Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings
And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth This is the time of tension between dying and birth The place of solitude where three dreams cross Between blue rocks But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away Let the other yew be shaken and reply.
Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.

From the series, Unto Dust. 2010.

Today in regions all over the world, New Orleans, Brazil, Italy and elsewhere the celebratory season of Carnival builds to a frenzy with Mardi Gras then comes to a eerily quiet close on Wednesday. It is interesting to me that in New York, where I have photographed on Ash Wednesday all these years, with the exception of a few bars, there is little to no celebration. We have no parade here. It would appear that New Yorkers skip right to the penance. Since my pictures are of people in midtown Manhattan—people going to and coming from work (because of course it is always Wednesday, the exact middle of the work week)—the pictures have also become a collective portrait of our work ethic.

From the series Unto Dust, 2003.

Only two more shopping days until Ash Wednesday.


From the series, Unto Dust, 1999.

I am counting down to Ash Wednesday, the day I revisit my annual project, Unto Dust, photographing Catholic New Yorkers who have received ashes on the first day of Lent.  I began the project 15 years ago in 1997 and have shot every year since then except 1998 (the year I decided I should make it a project).

Untitled, 2011 from Ash Wednseday. Photographs by Greg Miller.

Here are the results of my photographing this year’s Ash Wednesday. You can see an edit from previous years here.  I have been photographing this day in midtown Manhattan for 14 years now, but since it’s only one day a year it is a slow process. It’s like I have been shooting for only 14 days. Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent in the Catholic calendar (Episcopals do it too), so it’s actually a somber day meant to remind the faithful of their mortality, the inevitability of sin and of the promise of forgiveness. It has always struck me that, when administering ashes, the priest says, “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”

In case you are wondering, I am not Catholic. I was raised Methodist.  My grandfather was a Methodist minister but died when I was one year old so I don’t remember him.  My grandmother, walking around her kitchen, talked a lot about him and shared their humanist beliefs with me. I believe that much of the way I see the world was shaped there in her kitchen.

The beauty of Ash Wednesday is that very ordinary people, heading to the train, to work or school, exercise the simple act of wearing their faith for this one day a year.  A very old ritual against the backdrop of modern society.

As a photographer it is something of a ritual for me as well.  When I began the project in 1997, I wasn’t planning on shooting Ash Wednesday but walking around on the street to photograph… anything.  One of those days happened to be Ash Wednesday.  Because of my relative unease with the camera back then, I used to center the subject and have them engage the camera. Now I do anything I can to avoid people posing or looking in the camera.  But for the sake of continuity I return to this way of photographing people, sort of a testimonial portrait, for one day a year.

I am editing the series for book publication in the near future.  I want to thank Amy Skinner from the Guggenheim Foundation for coming with me this year, documenting the day and for being a lovely presence.

Behind the scenes photographs by Amy Skinner