Gjon Mili

Gjon Mili, born in Korça, Albania in 1904, came to the United States in 1923 to study electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After graduation in 1927, he worked for Westinghouse as a lighting research engineer until 1938.

When asked in 1977 in an interview about his life after M.I.T, Mili explained that ”after graduating I took many photographs as an amateur while doing research in lighting to earn a living. It was 10 years before I was able to profit materially from my photographic efforts.”

Through experiments with Harold Edgerton at MIT he developed tungsten filament lights for color photography; further innovations in stroboscopic and stop-action images brought his work to the attention of Life.

Mili worked freelance for the magazine from 1939 until his death, producing thousands of photographs — action shots of dance, sports, and theater events; portraits of artists, musicians, athletes, dancers, and actors.

Time, Mili realized, “could truly be made to stand still. Texture could be retained despite sudden violent movement.” These insights, combined with his love of jazz, helped him create some of the most intimate, unique portraits of jazz legends ever made by any photographer all in what LIFE magazine called his “smoky sweaty barn of a studio.”

As for the jam sessions themselves, LIFE wrote in its Oct. 11, 1943, issue in which some of these pictures first appeared: 

A jam session is an informal gathering of temperamentally congenial jazz musicians who play unrehearsed and unscored music for their own enjoyment. It usually takes place in the early morning hours after the participants have finished their regular evening’s work with large bands. . . . It represents the discarding of the shackles imposed by working with a band that plays You’ll Never Know and All or Nothing at All in the same unimaginative arrangements night after night. It represents the final freedom of musical expression.

Recently such a session took place in the New York studio of LIFE photographer Gjon Mili. From shortly before 9 p.m. until after 4 a.m. some of the most distinguished talents in jazz performed for an audience, which, in the smoky sweaty barn of a studio, derived an alert, fascinated, almost frenzied enjoyment from what it heard.

When LIFE magazine’s Gjon Mili, a technical prodigy and lighting innovator, visited Pablo Picasso in the South of France in 1949, the meeting of these two artists and craftsmen resulted in something extraordinary. Mili showed Picasso some of his photographs of ice skaters with tiny lights affixed to their skates, jumping in the dark, and the Spanish genius’s ever-stirring mind began to race.

“Picasso” LIFE magazine reported at the time, “gave Mili 15 minutes to try one experiment. He was so fascinated by the result that he posed for five sessions, projecting 30 drawings of centaurs, bulls, Greek profiles and his signature. Mili took his photographs in a darkened room, using two cameras, one for side view, another for front view. By leaving the shutters open, he caught the light streaks swirling through space.”

This series of photographs, known ever since as Picasso’s “light drawings,” were made with a small electric light in a darkened room; in effect, the images vanished as soon as they were created and yet they still live, six decades later, in Mili’s playful, hypnotic images. Many of them were also put on display in early 1950 in a show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

He made films about artists, among them Jamming the Blues, Eisenstaedt Photographs “The Tall Man,” and Homage to Picasso. Mili taught at Yale, Sarah Lawrence College, and Hunter College. Among his many exhibitions were Dancers in Movement and On Picasso with Robert Capa, both at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

A retrospective of his work was held at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York in 1980, the same year that the book, Gjon Mili: Photographs and Recollections, which spanned fifty years of his photographs, was published. Mili was a pioneer in the portrayal of movement in photography. Not only did his engineering of photographic lighting tools and techniques in the 1930s change the possibilities for depicting movement, but his photographs themselves altered the public’s general understanding of motion in general.

Through the sheer number of his motion photographs and their frequent publication in Life magazine, Mili revealed the mechanics of human kinetics to postwar society. His dynamic fashion and advertising images demonstrated his ability to adapt his discoveries creatively without overwhelming the image in photographic pyrotechnics.

Gjon Mili died of pneumonia on Feb. 14, 1984 at the Courtland Gardens Convalescent Home in Stamford, Connecticut. He was 79 years old and had lived in Manhattan.

The French humanist photographer considered a master of candid photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson commenting on Mr. Mili’s work, said: ”I admire his sense of economy, his respect for craftmanship and his distaste for pretensions.”

Mr. Mili was survived by a brother and a sister who live in Bucharest, Rumania.

Ultimately, Mili’s work is about how photography freezes moments, creates prominence, and makes history. Gjon Mili made history. Take for instance Picasso’s light drawings of centaurs, bulls, and human figures that disappeared within milliseconds over 70 years ago, but they live on in Mili’s remarkable photographs today.

— Dino Korca

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