Alexandria, VA – John Whitcomb Hiller devoted 55 years to making a living as a professional photographer, 40 of those while living in Alexandria. One Saturday in 2007, John and his wife Alyssa Pease visited Del Ray Artisans seeking out an aluminum silver tray with a mirror in it by Alexandria artist Linda Elliff. They bought the tray and began returning to the gallery as regulars. Soon John was asked if he would join the DRA Board as the Historian/Archivist, documenting the shows on exhibit as the official gallery photographer.
In his bio as a speaker for the Art of Journalism program, held in conjunction with the Living Legends Portraits exhibited at the DRA gallery in 2013, John reminisced about what brought him to DRA back in 2007, the mirrored silver tray: “It’s too soon to tell, but it seems that my life as a photographer has once again changed.”
John Hiller was born in Altadena, California, on February 25, 1935. He passed away on January 14, 2020, at INOVA Mount Vernon Hospital after battling a long illness. John left an incredible legacy as a photographer, photojournalist, and filmmaker. It all began when he found an expensive German camera in a gutter near his boyhood home. After college, John studied photography at The Art Center School in Los Angles and soon began taking jobs at Pasadena portrait studios. Then he worked as a photographer at the Arcadia Tribune before being drafted into the Army.
As John told it, the Army launched his career as a cinematographer with his first film, Now We Are One. His Colonel asked John if he could handle a camera, John said “Sure,” and a cinematographic star was born. In 1970 he was hired to work at the Smithsonian as the staff photographer.
Over the next 43 years, John made some 206 movies. John was a relentless joker. “Yes,” he wrote, “I counted.” Numerous awards came his way in such a storied career, 135 to be exact. “Okay, I counted them too,” John quipped.
John was all too humble. His colleagues and fellow artists were unaware of his numerous awards. His lifetime career achievements included an Oscar for the 1985 Best Documentary Short, The Stone Carvers, spotlighting the artistry of master carvers Vincent Palumbo and Roger Moroni, whose sculptural work adorns the Washington National Cathedral.
He received an Oscar nomination for the 1980 documentary Generation on the Wind, 20 Emmy Awards, including five for Outstanding Individual Achievement, and 31 CINE Golden Eagle Awards. John’s cinematography can be seen in the film Gorgo (1961) and the 1995 PBS/Smithsonian production Dream Window, Reflections on the Japanese Garden.
In 2013 John pivoted from photojournalism and cinematography to focus on fine-art image-making. He had officially retired from his work at the Smithsonian by then but remained active as a volunteer Research Associate. After 40 years, he closed that chapter of his life to pursue his earliest passion for still-photo art, capturing ephemeral moments in nature and transforming the landscape through his viewfinder.
Exhibit co-curator and director of DRA grants and sponsorships Karen Schmitz said, “As co-curator, I am thinking of the ‘Butterfly Effect,’ how one small incident can have a big impact on the future. Starting with John as a boy finding an abandoned camera in the gutter, then decades later working as a cinematographer in 2007, and buying an art mirror at DRA after seeing it pictured in a local paper. John’s wife Alyssa mentioned that John did not talk about his past film career and awards. John was focused on the future, and his own photography jump-started after joining DRA. Interestingly, as I searched the exhibit archives on Flickr, it dawned on me that there are not many photos of John because he was taking most of the photos. Once again behind the camera.”
Alyssa still has the tray with the mirror. It will be on display at Del Ray Artisans for the John Hiller Retrospective until July 17. Life has a way of revisiting the past, returning full circle. In passing, John Whitcomb Hiller has found another way to make his life as a photographer change. It may be too soon to tell, but it seems he’s come home once again.