For more than 30 years, Toby Talbot says, he’s had “a front-row seat to history.”
As the Associated Press’ sole staff photographer in Vermont, the 63-year-old Calais resident has captured floods and fires, soldiers and politicians — and plenty of cows grazing in the fields.
“I’ve just seen incredible joy and incredible sadness and made what I think are great pictures out of them,” he says.
On Friday, Talbot is retiring from the AP. He’ll still take photographs, he says, and contribute occasionally to the wire service. But he plans to spend more time pursuing his other passion: serving as deputy chief of the East Montpelier Fire Department.
“I don’t know how many times we use the phrase, ‘It’s the end of an era,’ but this truly is,” says Chris Graff, who served as the AP’s Montpelier bureau chief — and Talbot’s boss — from 1980 until 2006. “The position Toby has didn’t exist before Toby had it, and it won’t exist after he retires.”
A contractor and amateur photographer at the time, Talbot got his first pair of assignments from Graff in December 1980, when, in a single weekend, fires destroyed the Trapp Family Lodge and a city block in downtown Montpelier. Three years later, Graff hired Talbot as a part-time stringer. In 1987, he brought the photographer on full time.
In the early days of his career, it took Talbot eight minutes to send a black and white photograph to New York City using a drum print transmitter. When the AP switched to color, the process took 24 minutes and three separate transmissions. These days, any yahoo with an iPhone can submit images to the local newspaper.
“There is some value to the feet on the ground of the person being there to see it,” Talbot says of reader-submitted photos. “But I think what a good photojournalist does is have creativity and artistry and storytelling all in one little image, which doesn’t happen with reader photos for the most part.”
Wilson Ring, who now runs the Montpelier bureau, says that Talbot knows how to capture the essence of a story. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s been driving his pickup truck around the state for decades.
“He knows all the nooks and crannies and how to get there,” Ring says. “And whenever he meets people to take a picture of them, he instantly puts them at ease.”
Through the years, Talbot’s work has appeared on the front pages of the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post and USA Today. He’s covered New Hampshire’s presidential primaries, George H.W. Bush’s summer White House in Kennebunkport, Me., and World Cup skiing.
He says his biggest coup came after the 2001 death of Dale Ernhardt, when Time magazine ran a photo he’d taken of the NASCAR driver at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway — on a two-page spread.
But after more than 30 years on the job, Talbot says the thrill has faded.
“I’ve covered everything in Vermont multiple times. It’s like déjà vu all over again,” he says. “The daily grind of photojournalism is now a little less rewarding because newspapers don’t have any holes left for pictures. The papers are so small, and they don’t display pictures the way they used to.”
It’s unclear whether the AP will replace Talbot. Since 2007, the Montpelier bureau has downsized through attrition from six positions to four — and tasked some of its remaining reporters with covering other parts of northern New England.
“It is possible there will not be another full-time photographer up there,” says AP spokesman Paul Colford. “But it is also our intention, as it’s always our intention, to keep the territory covered and to serve the members we have up there.”
Graff’s take on that?
“It’s one thing to say, ‘Our reporters are going to carry cameras,’ but it’s never the same. Toby has an eye. He’s trained,” Graff says. “Vermont has been very lucky to have Toby here.”