In wall text for the photography show “Visions of Place,” currently at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, the curator suggests that viewers ponder which aspects of Vermont’s culture ought to be preserved as essential to its identity.
The photos themselves, however, document the passing of a way of life and of a kind of Vermonter who for decades defined the state’s sense of itself. “Visions of Place,” which includes some 50 beautiful portraits and still-lifes by three veteran lensmen, could just as well have been titled “Vanished Vermont.” It’s a haunting show with a ghostly aura.
Most of its subjects — hill farmers photographed over the past 40 years — are dead now. And the means of their sustenance, family dairying, is dying as well. The show’s opening last month at the VFC coincided with the news that the number of dairy farms in the state has dipped below 1000. There were 11,000 such operations in Vermont during the lifetimes of those who look out at visitors to the show.
Peter Miller, whose Vermont People and Vermont Farm Women photo compilations grace many a coffee table, states unequivocally in an introductory panel that the world of his subjects is irretrievably lost. Miller quotes a friend’s observation about the people whose lives are etched in these expressive portraits: “They are an endangered species, and Vermont is all used up.”
Miller doesn’t simply respond with resignation to the transformations he’s witnessed. Banks won’t lend to the “woodchucks” with whom he identifies, he complains in that opening text. Creditors instead “cozy up” to such new-Vermont corporate icons as IBM and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters because, Miller asserts, “banks prefer the people to whom they extend credit to be pasteurized.”
His black-and-white close-ups speak for themselves in much the same terms.
Here’s Willis Hicks, smiling as he wrestles a Holstein into baring her teeth, a packet of White Owl cigars peeping from the pocket of his flannel shirt. Miller’s caption accompanying this 1968 composition explains that Hicks sold 150 head in the last cow auction on the Mountain Road in Stowe. “Now the farmhouse where skiers stayed for $2 a night is a restaurant, and a strawberry daiquiri costs $4.25.” (A price estimate that further dates Miller, who was born in 1934.)
Nearby hangs a portrait of Joe Tuttle, father of famous Fred, shot at the Tunbridge dairy farm that’s been in the family since 1798. “New people come in, and I can’t understand them,” Joe Tuttle says in Miller’s handwritten annotation. “They buy a place in good condition and tear out every partition, and they start over and build it again. God, but I guess they need to spend money.”
The show’s elegiac mood is accentuated by Richard Brown’s photo essay on Theron Boyd, a Quechee farmer. In one of the interviews with the three photographers, which visitors can listen to on hand-held audio players, Brown explains that Boyd “seemed like he’d come out of the 19th century.” With crevassed face and raggedy overalls, Boyd is shown scything his pasture and preparing dinner atop a woodstove in a home without electricity and with water drawn by hand from a well.
Boyd is a relic, a museum specimen, who, as Brown says, lived “in his own world, and it wasn’t this one.”
“Visions of Place” also contains John Miller’s photographic testimonial to a Northeast Kingdom farming couple. Miller (no relation to Peter) began taking pictures of Richard and Doris Cubit in 1972. He continued recording the interior and exterior of their Albany farmhouse following their deaths.
This section of the show is dominated by a large color portrait of Doris Cubit (1917-2004) standing in the snow holding a milking bucket and wearing a red jacket with thread ties. Alongside is a shot of the Cubits’ now-empty homestead. The door of a cast-iron cookstove gapes open in a room with green wainscoting and a bare wooden floor.
John Miller says of these photos in one of the taped interviews that his aim is to “let the object speak for itself [and not] impose my artist schtick.” A picture might thus “get more at what this person’s life is about.” The large portrait, for example, “is about Doris rather than about my own life.”
Peter Miller also tries to keep himself out of his photos, he says in an interview recorded with VFC folklorist Greg Sharrow. His portrait subjects display a remarkable degree of openness, Miller explains, because “I visit with them. I sit down and talk to the people. You keep your own mouth shut.” Their comfort level elevated, farmers like Hicks and Tuttle keep on talking as Miller uses a cable release to subtly click his tripod-mounted camera.
It’s a technique resonant with respect for the person whose image is being preserved. It also opens a window through which the new Vermont can view the old one as it recedes rapidly into history.