Gjon Mili outside his office on Warner Bros. lot where he is directing film, "Jammin' the Blues." (Photo by Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Gjon Mili outside his office on Warner Bros. lot where he is directing film, “Jammin’ the Blues.” (Photo by Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

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. 

Artist Pablo Picasso using flashlight to make a light drawing in the air. (Photo by Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Artist Pablo Picasso using flashlight to make a light drawing in the air. (Photo by Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Billie Holiday, a singular jazz vocalist known for recordings of such songs as “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child,” performed at one of the late night jazz sessions hosted by LIFE photographer Gjon Mili. Holiday, raised partly in a Baltimore brothel and partly in a home for troubled girls, endured childhood sexual abuse and later became addicted to alcohol and heroin, before dying at age 44, in 1959.

Photo by Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Russian-born American operatic mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel sings as a cat named Blackie sits on a piano, 1952.

Russian-born American operatic mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel sang as a cat named Blackie sat on a piano, 1952.

Gjon Mili The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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.

Christian Dior

Photo by Gjon Mili//The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

1940s LIFE Fashion Cover

April 7, 1941 issue.

Gjon Mili LIFE Magazine

Dancer Gene Kelly showing off his balletic grande jetee in this stroboscopic studio study. (Photo by Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Dancer Gene Kelly showing off his balletic grande jetee in this stroboscopic studio study. (Photo by Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

“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

Frog submerging after jumping into an aquarium tank. (Photo by Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

Frog submerging after jumping into an aquarium tank. (Photo by Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation)

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