Arts council displays work, life of a pioneer

Exhibit salutes one of the first female photojournalists

March 17, 2002|By Justin Paprocki | Justin Paprocki,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At the turn of the last century, Westminster native Sadie Miller traveled the world as one of the nation's first female photojournalists, capturing in black-and-white images of the Alaskan Gold Rush, Mexican rebel Pancho Villa and the mounting German war machine before World War I.

Although Miller collected an extensive portfolio, becoming one of the most recognized and accomplished photographers of her time, her work was largely forgotten - even in her hometown.

That's changing with Carroll County Arts Council's exhibit of Miller's work this month. The exhibit, Mrs. Miller's Maryland: The Lady from Leslie's, includes more than 100 of her photographs and articles.

"It's unusual that we would have a show like this," said Sandy Oxx, executive director of the gallery. "Usually, we just show [local] artists."

The gallery decided to diverge from its usual traditional art showcases to honor Miller as part of Women's History Month.

Miller, who was born in Westminster in 1867 and educated at Western Maryland College, had her work pushed aside in history until it was rediscovered by Western Maryland College English professor Keith Richwine in the early 1980s. Richwine then took it on a tour of Maryland in part to restore the pioneering photojournalist's reputation, which may have been lost because she was a woman.

Forgotten hardships

At the time, Miller was unique in her field, one dominated by men.

"We've forgotten how hard it is to be working as a woman at the turn of the century," Oxx said.

Miller started her career as one of the first baseball reporters in the nation, covering the Baltimore Orioles for the Baltimore Telegram and signing her work SKM to disguise her identity.

She ended her career after a stroke forced her to retire from Leslie's Illustrated Weekly in 1918, where she had risen to become one of the most recognized and accomplished photographers of her time.

Extensive portfolio

She died at age 53 in 1920, with an extensive portfolio, some of which is shown at the gallery. There are her grainy black-and-white images of the mangled battleship Maine resurfacing in Havana. There's a photo of Miller, in elaborate dress, atop a mule in Yosemite National Park.

She documented five Democratic conventions, the Baltimore fire of 1904 and is credited with taking the last known photograph of suffragist Susan B. Anthony. She was one of the first reporters in Baltimore to tour and photograph the city's new sewage pipes in the early 1900s.

Her adventures extended out of the gutter in 1912 when German officers arrested her on assignment at a North Sea base, mistaking her for an English spy, according to a Leslie's article on display at the gallery.

Her captors didn't realize she was photographing the base and let her off with a warning, but not without her snapping a few more photos of the German stronghold, some of which are on display in the gallery.

But some of her more poignant photographs are local.

There are grainy photos of the Western Maryland campus, with buildings still recognizable. There's a photo of the house in which Miller was born, at 78 W. Main St., which still stands, but is across from a Shell station and with a "For Rent" sign in a front window.

`Interesting' accomplishment

"For a woman to do what she accomplished is interesting," said Naomi Benzil of the Carroll County Commission for Women, which helped organize the exhibit.

"I think it's important to see that women did this in the past and that they can do it in the future."

The exhibit features photocopies of Miller's photographs from Leslie's instead of actual prints because little of her original work survived her death or a fire at Leslie's in the 1920s that destroyed their archives, according to Western Maryland College archivist Barbara O'Brien.

"Most of her stuff was destroyed after she died in 1920," O'Brien said. "After her husband married again, I don't think anything was kept."

Miller's legacy is largely forgotten, even on the campus of her alma mater. She is mentioned briefly in a "Women in Western Culture" course at Western Maryland College, but her images are not on permanent display there.

"She's just one of those little people who start things but don't get in the public eye," O'Brien said.

The exhibit is kept in Western Maryland's archives, but Benzil said she decided to approach the college about showing it for Women's History Month.

Change of pace

The gallery found the exhibit - in storage at the college for the past 20 years - to be a welcome change of pace, Oxx said. "They're really timeless images," she said. "It really does look like a movie set. We do take for granted that people really did dress like that back then."

The exhibit is on display until March 29. The gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. The gallery is in the Winchester Exchange Building, 15 E. Main St., Westminster.

Information: 410-848-7272.

Sun staff writer Maria Blackburn contributed to this article.

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