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02/01/92

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STUDENT PHOTOGRAPHER CAPTURES STREET LIFE

STANFORD -- Ken Miller remembers the first picture he ever took. He was 10 years old and photographed two strangers working on a fence.

From the beginning, he said, "I used my camera to explore worlds not my own."

One of those worlds appears in Miller's latest collaboration with writer William Vollman, Whores for Gloria. The book has just been published in the United States and Britain. A limited-edition portfolio of Miller's photos of prostitutes will be published separately.

Miller, 34, a master of fine arts candidate in photography in Stanford University's art department, has worked with Vollman for almost a decade to record the grittier aspects of urban life.

Miller said he is fascinated by "people who live on the fringes of society" - alcoholics, prostitutes, neo-Nazi skinheads.

His technique is straightforward: He simply approaches potential subjects, camera in hand, and asks if he can photograph them. Miller said that he emphasizes that he is not trying to change them in any way, but simply wants to record their lives.

Since Miller spends a lot of time on the streets, regulars get used to seeing him. Often, he said, someone will initially tell him to get lost, only to later beg him to take a picture.

Last summer, on assignment for Esquire magazine, Miller and Vollmann went to Cambodia, where Miller photographed the street life in the capital of Phnom Penh - a little girl caring for her grandfather, barbers doing business right on the busy sidewalks, a baby asleep in a hammock.

Many of his photos documented the legacy of two decades of war: legless men, women and children, victims of land mines; former Khmer Rouge soldiers languishing in jail.

Miller said that his father was an ardent amateur photographer. At 10, Ken had his own darkroom. At 13, he was photographing people on the streets of his native Boston.

For a high school class, he photographed the inside of his father's dry cleaning establishment, producing artistic work he imagined to be in the style of Ansel Adams. His teacher commented on the photos, "These are nice, but they don't tell me anything."

Determined to show what he could do, Miller persuaded a friend who worked at a home for the aged to let Miller take photographs there. The teacher, happy with the images of old people the student had captured, displayed the work. Miller's triumph, however, was tarnished when a classmate objected because her grandmother's photo was among those on exhibit.

"It was my first experience of the intrusiveness of photography," Miller said.

That experience stayed with him. Even when a subject is pleased to cooperate, Miller often is protective of the person's privacy. He met one girl in 1985 when she was 15, wearing Nazi T-shirts and sporting a shaved head. Now, he said, she has hair and a child. Although she told Miller he could publish or exhibit photographs of her, he refrained from doing so for a few years.

When he did include photographs of her in an exhibit in San Francisco, he said, she came with a group of friends and seemed pleased with the images.

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