Is it a bird or is it a plane? Capturing Dod Miller’s Birdmen
January 22, 2022
Peter Dench talks to Dod Miller, the modest man of photography, about his forthcoming book, Birdmen
‘In Romania, the hotel was right in the middle of the revolution. I arrived, got a room, got in the lift to my room and there were a couple of soldiers with machine guns in there, we got off at the floor the foreigners were on. This guy from Reuters news organisation started shouting at the soldiers to get out, he didn’t want them using our hotel facilities.
I rang room service for a couple of fried eggs, some toast, brandy and a couple of large coffees. Finished breakfast, went outside, shot a few rolls of film, popped back to the hotel, had some lunch, half a bottle of red wine and went back out. I thought, this is ok,’ explains photographer Dod Miller, sitting next to a giant vase of wilting pink lilies at his home in south London.
Dod’s impactful black & white photographs shot on assignment for The Observer of tanks in Palace Square, civilians fleeing sniper fire, food being delivered during a firefight, a funeral and a young soldier sleeping during a lull in fighting, received an Honourable mention in Spot News, Stories at the 1990 World Press Photo Contest.
Dod won’t be best remembered for these award-winning images of revolution. He won’t be best remembered for the 1991 Photo Contest, General News, Singles, Honourable mention photograph of a pro-democracy demonstration in Moscow or his 1991 Photo Contest, People in the News, Singles, Honourable mention for a photograph of former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
He won’t be best remembered for his 1996 Photo Contest, Nature, Stories, 3rd prize – a brilliantly observed reportage of UK cigarette smokers alone or in small groups, in doorways or on rooftops and balconies after a European Directive restricted smoking inside the workplace. What he will definitely be remembered for is his photographs that didn’t win a World Press Photo award of people dressed in aviation- related attire chucking themselves off various piers along the south coast of England in attempts to win cash prizes.
From 1971 to 1978 the South of England’s annual Birdman was held in the seaside resort of Selsey. A completed distance of 50 yards would scoop a £3,000 prize. The competition migrated to Bognor Regis pier and by the mid 1980s had attracted European teams and the attention of television crews. In 2008, the competition was moved to Worthing after the demolition of the end of Bognor pier.
The inaugural Worthing Birdman was won by Birdman stalwart Ron Freeman, who travelled a distance of 85.9 metres off Worthing pier. The following year it was won by Steve Elkins who flew 99.86 metres, falling within a feather of the 100-metre target and £30,000 jackpot.
Dod first experienced the human projectiles in 1994: ‘I think it was a commission because I shot it in colour. I always know if I shoot things in colour, I wouldn’t have done it for myself.’
He then started doing it for himself, swapping to his trusted Rolleiflex and Kodak Tri-X 400 film. ‘The great thing about the Rolleiflex is, unlike a Hasselblad where you have to take backs off and put slides in, you just open the back, put the film in, shut the back and carry on, put the film in your pocket and that’s your day out.
Some of the times I went, I only shot a few frames, had a look around and thought, I’m going to have a pint and some fish and chips and go home. Occasionally I’d take my family and we’d just all hang out on the beach for a bit, treat it like an afternoon on the south coast.’
Dod’s square-format pictures capture with cinematic clarity a man with a propeller on his head and another with flippers on his feet. There are scenes of spectators on the beach and Birdmen crashing into the sea. Thirty-nine images feature in the 84-page book published by Plague Press (available via Setanta Books), a publishing enterprise created by street photographer Matt Stuart.
Matt, who used to assist Dod from time to time, appears in one of the photographs strolling along Bognor pier. Another photograph features a behemoth of modern flight, Sir Richard Branson. ‘He nicked the idea off of me. I went down to Gatwick with an art director I was working with to suggest Virgin could use some of the Birdmen pictures for their PR. They thought it was funny but bottled out in the end as they didn’t like the idea of people throwing themselves off piers.
I didn’t hear anything more, then about two years later, Virgin sponsored the event. I think it was Branson’s birthday and he had a massive tent in Bognor Regis, a bar in it with all his family. I met his mum. They flew one of his jets over the end of the pier,’ claims Dod. Was he ever tempted to take the plunge himself? ‘I always said I would do it when I get a book published as I always thought it would happen at some stage but I’ve changed my mind.’
We move into the garden to allow Dod’s puppy Winnie, a Bull Mastiff cross, to bound around. The temperature is ticking into winter and I zip up my coat. Dod, dressed in sandals, purple socks, Italian designer corduroy and flat-cap doesn’t flinch at the chill. You wouldn’t expect him to. Born in 1960, Dodik (later shortened to Dod) grew up in Moscow (his British father was assigned there as a Reuters journalist).
His brother and sister were born in Moscow but being the first born and his mother initially nervous of Russian hospitals, she flew back to deliver Dod in Norwich. Perhaps that’s where his sense of humour comes from. Dod spent the first decade of his life pinning on his badge of young Lenin before heading to school or popping on his red cap of the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League Komsomol youth movement.
Summer was spent in camps outside Moscow fishing and collecting mushrooms. When he returned home to his parents, it took him a while to resume conversations in English. ‘Of course now my Russian is absolutely diabolical,’ grins Dod. Via a few years living and mostly surfing in South Africa, Dod and his family settled in London. His father wanted to return to Moscow but with diplomatic tensions between London and Moscow at red-alert, it was a nyet.
Dod, with a slight and slightly unfortunate South African accent for the time, went about building a darkroom at his school and started photographing punk bands for his portfolio. ‘I was going to go to the London College of Printing to study photography and then heard about a job on a local paper down on the south coast, the Hastings Observer and Sussex Express, a job that was paid, had a camera allowance and a Ford Fiesta, how cool is that! I had a really great boss. I’d been there two weeks before he went off on a holiday and basically left me to it. It was very entertaining.’
You won’t find too much online about Dod; there’s a bit about the Network Agency he joined in 1990 and a bit more on the Messum’s Art Gallery website which sells his prints and hints at his financial successes as an advertising photographer. He’s not much into social media, his official web-page biography simply reads: Dod Miller lives in London and takes a few pictures now and again.
‘I’m totally analogue. One day I was looking online and typed in my name and this box appeared with my name. I thought f***ing hell! I really have arrived, but when I went and had a look a week later, it had gone, I’d literally been and gone.’ I’m sure with the publication of Birdmen, his online box will be back.
This modest man of analogue photography has diligently gone about his craft for decades and isn’t obsessed with legacy: ‘I’m quite happy, this book will do nicely thank you very much. I had a brilliant job for about 15 years, raising a young family, nobody writes too much about the legacy of that.’
Birdmen is published by Plague Press 2021 and available via Setanta Books. A selection of work from Birdmen will be exhibited in 2022 at Messum’s Harrogate in March and Wiltshire in July.