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June 27, 2013

Photographer Peter Miller Talks About His New Book, A Lifetime of Vermont People


Waterbury-based photographer Peter Miller, who prefers to say his residence is in Colbyville, has published a lot of images we like to call "iconic." And that's because they are. In his previous books Vermont People and Vermont Farm Women, we can see older Vermonters, primarily living close to the land, and recognize that the photos document a passing way of life — and yet it's one that continues to resonate in the still largely agrarian Green Mountain State.

Maybe it's the "new" agricultural consciousness in Vermont that keeps the interest in Miller's images alive. Maybe it's just that he wanted to repackage previously published photographs with others never before seen. Either way, Miller's new A Lifetime of Vermont People — released on his own Silver Print Press — is a handsome, 9-by-12-inch coffee-table volume.

The photo on its cover is a head shot of Carroll Shatney, a Scottish Highlander breeder in Greensboro Bend. It was taken in 1993, when Shatney was 98. His grizzled, time-worn face is offset by a jaunty cap that says "Fun!" and appears to be a souvenir of the Champlain Valley Fair.

Shatney died in 2009. His son, Ray, and wife continue to sell Highland beef to individual customers, restaurants and stores, according to A Lifetime of Vermont People. And that's one of the lovely things about the book: that Miller provides updates about many of the people in his photographs. It illustrates not only how much research he has done, but also how much he cares about the folks he's captured on film.

Miller also cares deeply about quality — of his rich black-and-white images and how they're reproduced; of the paper and print quality; and of the book's overall appearance — it's a deep brown, clothbound volume with gold embossed print on the cover. Miller had it produced by a company in Italy. He spent a year preparing it before sending it off to the printer. 

PM4Rob3Why embark, at age 78, on a project that may or may not benefit him financially? "There was still interest in Vermont People," Miller writes. But you get the sense that he was more than interested himself. And in addition to the older portraits of rural Vermonters, "I expanded it to poets, writers and artists (even a skiing governor)," Miller continues, referring in that last instance to Howard Dean.

"I realized that I was documenting the era I grew up in and its quick disappearance as Vermont became more homogenized and gentrified. So my legacy is Vermont's legacy. This book is about the sixty years I spent writing and photographing the people in this state."

It should be noted that Miller is a capable writer as well as a photographer. Accordingly, just as fans of black-and-white film photography will admire his crisp images with deep blacks and a lush range of grays, readers will enjoy Miller's lucid prose and underlying wry humor. Here is but one example:

Attila the Hun. That's what Don Joslyn called himself so he scrawled it on his mailbox.

"A while ago those post office people told me I had to have my name or number on my mailbox. I asked them why.

"'So we know where to deliver your mail,' this post office guy said.

"My family's been living in this house for over 100 years and you still don't know where I live?"

Propped up on the stone wall, behind the mailbox and to the left of the big maple, is a piece of slate on which is carved Misery Manor, Don's name for the frame farmhouse, paint fading and eched by years of harsh weather, that he lives in with a couple of cats, his dog and a fine collection of books on the Civil War. Scattered on the front of his property and next to the dirt road that separates the house from the barn are a couple of chickens, Holstein heifers, a flock of sheep. Sometimes you can see a cow amble across the road, calf following.

PM4Rob1Peter Miller treasures the images and memories of the Vermonters he's met and documented. In turn, the photographer himself is a treasure. And that's why, in 2006, he was named Vermonter of the Year, for his contributions in chronicling the Vermont way of life, past and present.

It is also why this book and its photographs still appeal. Vermont remains a place in which the story of itself matters.

Miller talks about his book and how it came to be Thursday, June 27, 7 p.m., at Frog Hollow in Burlington, where there is also a current exhibit of hia images.

It marks the first stop in a statewide tour of libraries, including Manchester, Middlebury, Brattleboro, Woodstock, Stowe, St. Johnsbury, Derby Line and Barre.

 Photos, top to bottom: Paul Percy, farmer and sugarmaker, Stowe (2011); Will and Rowena Austin, retired farmers, Weston (1959).

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