Vermont People - 60 years of living history
The story of how Peter Miller came to make his latest book, "A Lifetime of Vermont People," is almost as interesting as the contents of the book itself, and that's saying something.
That the book has been a labor of love and an all-engrossing project is evident from the ease with which Miller rattles off the vital statistics. It's not what most 79 year-old freelance photographers probably imagine themselves doing. But Miller isn't your ordinary photographer either. The book's back story may be interesting, but it is what's between the covers that is likely to delight admirers of good writing and brilliant photography.
The former Weston resident and Burr and Burton Seminary graduate (Class of 1951) will be including details of how his latest book came to be in a talk he will be giving at the First Congregational Church in Manchester Village on July 10. It includes adventures like upping the mortgage on his house and launching a Kickstarter fund-raising effort to help move the project along.
Mr. Miller can now rest. The book is a soaring success artistically, and should be commercially, like its predecessor volume, "Vermont People" turned out to be.
An exhibit of his photographs will also be part of the Member's Exhibit that's opening at the Southern Vermont Arts Center on Saturday, July 6. A reception will be held at the Yester House Gallery from 2-4 p.m. The library is also hosting an exhibit of his work from July 6 through Aug. 14.
The book is a collection of written profiles that accompany photographs taken by Miller going back to 1950 when he was still a student at Burr and Burton. The most recent were taken last year, so all together the book spans more than six decades of Vermont history.
As eye-catching as his photographs are, Miller's writing is equally engaging.
"Photography was easy for me; writing was not," Miller said. "I'd go and visit with these people ... and I'd just talk to them, and then I'd find a location to photograph."
Miller, originally from New Jersey, lived in Weston but was a boarding student at Burr and Burton while there before going on to the University of Toronto and a stint in the U.S Army Signal Corps. He was for a time an assistant to the legendary photographer and portrait artist Yousuf Kharsh, from whom he learned a lot, Miller said.
After that came a reporting job with Life Magazine, then in its heyday and an influential national publication.
It was after his time at Life that he began to get the germ of the idea for the book about Vermont, he said, but it wasn't until 1988 that serious work got underway to produce it.
After a successful career as a freelance photographer, he plunged into the production of "Vermont People," his first book of photographs and stories about people he had met in Vermont. Thirteen separate publishers turned it down before he decided to publish it himself - "I really didn't know what I was doing," he says now - but the nerve-wracking venture ended up successfully. By 2003, 15,000 copies of it had been sold.
He kept churning out more books: five, including one on Vermont farm women, followed. But he kept getting hints that a successor volume to "Vermont People" might be well-received, so in 2011 he began to put together "A Lifetime of Vermont People," with its 60 portraits of rural Vermonters of all stripes. Poets, artists, places and events all make appearances.
"I picked the very best or the iconic photographs from 'Vermont People' and 'Vermont Farm Women' and added into it a bunch of new portraits," Miller said.
Here is where we meet the likes of Rowena and Will Austin of Weston, whose portrait and a series of other photographs of them were taken by Miller in 1959. They may be familiar - one of them standing outside their farmhouse in the snow became the cover picture for "Vermont People." The profile that accompanies the pictures takes us back to an earlier Vermont now vanishing - two self -employed farmers who scratch out a living from the land. But it was also a rewarding and satisfying way to live.
There's much more. We meet up again with Fred Tuttle - the man who obtained much notoriety and media attention when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1998. Here, an unusual portrait of Tuttle holding a picture of his father who is holding a picture of his father, all shot in the same spot on the family farm decades apart is paired with essays on both men that describe the background and culture of an earlier Vermont, as well as Tuttle's quixotic run for national office.
If there is a message to the book, Miller spells it out clearly in his introduction. The sixty years covered in his book depict a period of change. Most of the Vermonters he grew up with were self-employed and self-reliant. Charity may have begun at home but communities took care of their own, rallying, sometimes quietly, to support those who needed help in times of need. It seems clear Miller is less than enchanted with what is replacing the older lifestyle.
"So as Vermont succumbs to development and stringent state and federal regulations, its hard core residents are retreating," he writes. "Communities and cities are trading in their personalities as Vermonters, outnumbered, retreat into their home or find solace in isolated regions where agriculture is strong and roads are poor."
While Miller's prose is arresting and thought provoking, it's the photographs that are likely to command a reader's initial attention.
Miller didn't just happen upon these people and places by accident. They are the result of deliberate intention and preceded by background research. The process of making the picture was already well underway by the time his finger tripped his camera's shutter.
"It's not just about taking a pretty picture," Miller said, offering some advice. "What's that picture say? How do you simplify -- only one major subject per photograph -- try that."
An exhibit of Miller's work opened last month at the Frog Hollow Craft Center in Burlington. Manchester will be the first stop in a statewide tour being run by Frog Hollow that links up with local libraries in the eight towns the exhibit will be traveling to, said Rob Hunter, the executive director of Frog Hollow.
The evolutionary period libraries are going through, where they are transitioning from being lenders of books to broader community centers, made the idea of tying the tour together with local libraries intriguing to him, Hunter said. He also happens to be a former resident of Manchester and a graduate of Burr and Burton (1988).
"Peter Miller can tell an entire story with one image.... there's a brutal honesty to his photographs," he said. "In a lot of ways, he's capturing this myth of Vermont; if you look hard enough you can find it."
Miller's exhibit at the Southern Vermont Arts Center will open on Saturday, July 6, as will his exhibit at the library. His talk at the First Congregational Church, sponsored by the Mark Skinner Library, will be held on Wednesday, July 10, starting at 7 p.m. A limited number of copies of his book will be available for sale at the talk. For more information, call the Mark Skinner Library at 802-362-2607, or the Southern Vermont Arts Center at 802-362-1405.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.