Greg Miller is not confused by the smudged foreheads he sees on the streets this time of year. In fact, he waits all year to see them.
The photographer works at a snail's pace in general. This project, for example, has been 15 years in the making — though it has amounted to more like 15 cumulative days. He waits all year for Ash Wednesday. And even after a whole day's work, he walks away with only a few frames, because he is lugging around a large-format film camera. This clearly is not about instant gratification.
Photo of Miller at work (left) by Amy Skinner/Courtesy of Greg Miller
For 15 years, photographer Greg Miller has been taking photos of Catholics on Ash Wednesday. In the left image, he shows his large-format camera to a subject.
"I'm not Catholic," he says on his cellphone over sounds of New York City streets, where I caught him for a few minutes between shoots today. "But I do understand that it's a really sacred time of the year for them — the beginning of the Lenten season where you get back to the idea that your life is precious. ... I think that speaks for anybody."
For Christians, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, and the tradition of putting ash crosses on the forehead is meant to symbolize the beginning of a penitential season, a reminder of mortality.
"The beauty of Ash Wednesday," Miller explains on his blog, "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."
And as much as getting ashes on this day is a ritual for Catholics, so has photographing them become a ritual for Miller. He calls the series Unto Dust, a reference to what priests say on this day. (Along the lines of: "You are dust and unto dust you will return.")
In 2008, Miller received a Guggenheim Fellowship for photography; he plans to continue the series in hopes of one day creating a book from the images.