Gjon Mili immigrated to the United States in 1923, and studied electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Upon graduation in 1927, he worked for Westinghouse as a lighting research engineer until 1938. Through experiments with Harold Edgerton at MIT he developed tungsten filament lights for color photography; further innovations in stroboscopic and stop-action images brought his work to the attention of Life. Mili worked freelance for the magazine from 1939 until his death, producing thousands of photographs–action shots of dance, sports, and theater events; portraits of artists, musicians, athletes, dancers, and actors. He made films about artists, among them Jamming the Blues, Eisenstaedt Photographs “The Tall Man,” and Homage to Picasso. Mili taught at Yale, Sarah Lawrence College, and Hunter College. Among his many exhibitions were Dancers in Movement and On Picasso with Robert Capa, both at the Museum of Modern Art. A retrospective of his work was held at ICP in 1980, the same year that the book, Gjon Mili: Photographs and Recollections, which spanned fifty years of his photographs, was published.
Mili was a pioneer in the portrayal of movement in photography. Not only did his engineering of photographic lighting tools and techniques in the 1930s change the possibilities for depicting movement, but his photographs themselves altered the public’s general understanding of motion in general. Through the sheer number of his motion photographs and their frequent publication in Life magazine, Mili revealed the mechanics of human kinetics to postwar society. His dynamic fashion and advertising images demonstrated his ability to adapt his discoveries creatively without overwhelming the image in photographic pyrotechnics.