For a photographer who was far removed from the realm of bland portraiture, it is amusing to recall that he had a plaque in his New York City studio that proclaimed, ALL THE WORLD’S A CAMERA. LOOK PLEASANT, PLEASE. Gjon Mili (1904-1984) was born in Albania and raised in Romania, before emigrating to America to study electrical engineering at M.I.T. After working at Westinghouse on photographic applications of lighting techniques, he met in 1937 with M.I.T.’s Harold Edgerton, who had developed the stroboscopic light. Mili experimented with the process, then did a shoot for LIFE of tennis star Bobby Riggs in action, setting off a long relationship with the magazine. The pictures, taken in 1/100,000th of a second, also marked the beginning of a decade of strobe work: “Time could truly be made to stand still. Texture could be retained despite sudden violent movement.” Mili went on to take all manner of photographs, marked always by a command of the medium infused with craftsmanship and economy.
As an amateur oboe player, Mili had a real appreciation for the performing arts, and over the years he made many lovely photographs of dancers, musicians and actors. He also made a number of fine short films, with such subjects as Dave Brubeck and Pablo Picasso. Mill’s photograph of Picasso sketching with a penlight is among his most famous.
“My generation came at a time when photography was advancing by leaps and bounds, creating the impulse to experiment and to seek new approaches.” The time finally came, though, when the device that had made him a star was no longer enough: “After a decade I became fed up with the strobe because I had done most everything once and I didn’t want to repeat myself.” Mili would not completely abandon the strobe, but he worked more and more without it, and with beautiful results.
—Adapted from The Great LIFE Photographers