Peter Miller captures Vermont characters
A Lifetime of Vermont People, with photographs and text by Peter Miller; 208 pages in hardback; published by Silver Print Press; $49.95.
Reviewed by Chris Braithwaite
Any Northeast Kingdom resident who picks up Peter Miller’s extraordinarily handsome new book will see a lot of familiar faces.
Anne and Jack Lazor come up first, and Mr. Miller’s nighttime photograph of their Butterworks Farm in Westfield is among the best in the book.
That’s a surprise, because A Lifetime of Vermont People, as the name suggests, is a collection of portraits, supplemented with Mr. Miller’s insightful commentaries on his subjects.
Next up is Peter Johnson of Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury. Then there’s a shot of one of fisherman Roger Elkins’ favorite spots, the Willoughby River falls in Orleans.
There’s a charming portrait of Peter and Elka Schumann at their home overlooking Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover, closely followed by an iconic shot of Bill Royer playing his fiddle at a Sheffield Old Home Day, accompanied on the banjo by a shockingly young Burt Porter of Glover.
Greensboro Bend farmer Carroll Shatney, who died in 2009, is on the book’s cover. Colleen Goodridge and her sons pose at their cedar mill in Albany; brewmaster Shaun Hill chats with his father in Greensboro; the poet David Budbill meditates under a tree at his home in Wolcott; and novelist Howard Frank Mosher, rod in hand, strolls back to his Irasburg home from a fishing expedition.
The 60 profiles Mr. Miller includes in his book pretty much cover the state of Vermont. But its generous proportion of Kingdom characters reflects the photographer’s fondness for the area.
Indeed, he said while waiting for a book signing session to get underway at The Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick Friday evening, he’s looking for a new home in the area.
Mr. Miller has lived in Colbyville, near Waterbury, since 1968. But the ever-increasing traffic on Route 100 is finally getting to him.
And the Kingdom may turn out to be the final habitat of the quarry Mr. Miller has been stalking through his long career in photography.
“We are losing those Vermonters who have made this state unique,” he writes in his introduction. “These are the people who love their state for its beauty, but they revere it more for the freedom and privacy it has given them. Most of the Vermonters I grew up with are farmers, woodsmen, and craftspeople. They are self-employed and self-reliant.”
Mr. Miller’s decision to present his portraits in black and white — though he shoots them in color with a digital camera — underlines the emphasis he puts on the state’s character, rather than its ever-so-well-documented scenic beauty.
It was the right decision, and it gives his new book a timeless quality that reflects the five decades he has spent capturing the spirit of the odd souls he so admires.
It began in 1959 with Will and Rowena Austin of Weston. Mr. Miller was a neighbor who dropped by to visit the Austins on their front porch, carrying along his twin-lens Roliflex.
The farm couple is on the cover of Mr. Miller’s 1990 collection, Vermont People, and they appear again in his new book.
But A Lifetime of Vermont People is much enriched by the author’s notes that follow some of his profiles. It is here that the photographer talks about that problem faced by everyone who works with a camera — the reluctant subject:
“I was a shy kid, more comfortable alone in the woods, but I felt at home with Will and Rowena. I asked if I could take some photographs.
“‘Why sure,’ said Will.
“‘Goodness NO!’ said Rowena. She stood, plucked up her dress and flounced into the house. What they didn’t know is that, while talking, I photographed each with the camera in my lap.”
Rowena eventually came around, and one of the finest photographs in the book is of her making her way up the path to her house with the mail on a winter’s morning — a stout old woman leaning on her cane while a young cat, Canon Ball, prances behind her.
Another such note reveals that Mr. Miller worked for one of the twentieth century’s greatest photographers, Yousuf Karsh, of Ottawa, Canada.
Mr. Karsh took formal, carefully posed portraits of some of his era’s most famous people. Mr. Miller decided he was more interested in photojournalism, and left his mentor for a stint with Life Magazine before turning to freelance work.
But, he notes, he assimilated a lot from Mr. Karsh:
“I learned to read a face and fathom a personality, how to hold a conversation with my subjects and show them respect. I use a tripod (most of the time) and set off the camera with a cable release so I stand and face my subject as Karsh did. On my own I learned how to combine a persona with their environment.”
Those were lessons well learned, and the results, in Mr. Miller’s new book, are well worth seeing.
Peter Miller is one of three Vermont photographers whose work is currently featured at the Old Stone House in Brownington. “Visions of Place” includes the work of Peter Miller, John Miller and Richard Brown. It will be at the museum through October 13, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday.
contact Chris Braithwaite at [email protected]