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State of Mind



Published November 30, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

The digital age hasn't been easy for photographers who grew up on 35mm film and still love the dusky nuance of black and white. Central Vermont's Peter Miller is one of them, but at 71 he's not about to be intimidated by new technology, even if it makes him a little cranky. "I'm learning digital but I don't like it," he grumbles. "I have to constantly upgrade my computer." But he does appreciate the rapid improvements in high-tech printers, and admits that darkroom chemicals are "not good for you or the ground." Furthermore, he readily accepts the value in being able to preserve his 10,000 or so slides as digital files and putting them online. Finding the time to do it is another story.

"I'm not slowing down; my body is, but I'm still going," says Miller. "I have more projects in my mind than I have time to complete. I might go to India in January to get a website built . . ."

Ideas seem to flow nonstop from Miller, but the tech talk might come as a surprise to those who know him best for his rural-oriented, tradition-honoring chronicles: Vermont People and Vermont Farm Women. His latest, Vermont Gathering Places, follows the standard set out by the first of the Vermont trio. Published in 1990, Vermont People features black-and-white photographs and text, also by Miller, that poignantly document a passing era in the Green Mountain State.

The book was an instant classic. Some of its images are reproduced on greeting cards, such as the 1959 portrait of Weston farmers Will and Rowena Austin. The elderly couple is far forward in the shot, unsmiling and facing the camera. Snow covers the barn and field behind them, and flakes rest on their shoulders like dandruff. Years and hard work are etched in the faces of the pair. Wearing dark, plain clothes and standing against the snow-softened background, they look like a Vermont version of Grant Wood's "American Gothic."

But Miller did not, by any means, intend the shot to be a parody. Nor are his images sentimental; straightforward in both technique and subject matter, they simply document -- much like the pictures in Life magazine, where Miller was a reporter in the early '60s, or the Depression-era photos of Walker Evans. "In photos, I look for simplicity," he says. "I have a talent for shooting people. I don't know what it is."

While the shots in Vermont People were intentional, the collection was an "accident," Miller reveals. "I had all these pictures I'd taken over 35 years, and thought to do the book," he says. "Vermont was changing, losing these old Vermonters; condos were coming in, ski areas were getting structured, Burlington was coming into its own, and farmers couldn't make it," Miller explains. "People knew Vermonters were an endangered species."

Miller took a similar approach with People of the Great Plains, published in 1996. A large and beautiful book, it was a critical success but a financial disaster -- perhaps because the Midwest is too far away for Miller to schlep his books from store to store, as he does here from his home-based publishing company, Silver Print Press.

Random/Times Books published and marketed his next collection, The First Time I Saw Paris, in 2001. In it, Miller reveals some of his own past, from a half-century ago -- the years he spent stationed in the City of Light as a photographer for the U.S. Signal Corps. From old vegetable sellers in the Les Halles market to Dior-dressed fashion models to young jazz fans in the Latin Quarter, Miller documented Parisians emerging from the war. His prints have a luminous, silky quality; their style recalls the great French street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, as well as Miller's one-time teacher, Yousef Karsh.

"He was a good person to learn with; I didn't realize it until I did that Paris book," Miller says. "He tried to bring out the best in people, and I think that's what I do. It's not flattering so much; I just try to shoot the person that's there." Miller also learned from Karsh to use a tripod: "It's a very valuable tool; you can spend your time talking to your subject."

Miller chose subject matter closer to home for his next book, in 2002. Vermont Farm Women documents a tenacious demographic in a beleaguered occupation.

Though New York-born, Miller is fiercely protective of his adopted state, where he has happily indulged his favorite activities: skiing, hunting and fishing. His home is in Colbyville, he insists, referring to a historic district in Waterbury that was so named for a prosperous late-19th-century family. Miller decries the current "bedroom-community" development of that town, as well as what he fears will be theme-park-esque expansion from a certain ice-cream giant next door. His anti-sprawl fervor inspires a monthly newsletter, The Colbyville Chronicles, and has led to many an article in other local publications.

All of this made Miller a natural choice for shooting and writing Vermont Gathering Places. So did his friendship with Preservation Trust of Vermont President Henry Jordan. This book was no accident; it was an assignment, and Miller spent eight months interviewing, photographing -- mostly with a vintage Leica, and all in black-and-white -- and writing it. Vermont Gathering Places was produced to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Preservation Trust, Jordan notes in the introduction. The theme -- places where Vermonters create community -- was his idea; Jordan and his wife underwrote the book.

Like Miller's other Vermont volumes, this one has a pleasing balance of pictures and text. While some of the photos are portraits or just buildings, the majority shows people in groups: talking, eating, celebrating, dancing, hanging out. Little kids fishing on a summer day in Chelsea. A hillside crowd at Thunder Road. A barbershop in Randolph. A town meeting in Moretown. A lot of general stores.

If a good picture "speaks a thousand words," that may be why photographers are not usually writers as well. But Miller is skilled at both. His text in Vermont Gathering Places is as evocative as the images:

In the off-season Greensboro is so quiet you can ride a horse down Main Street. Come summer the houses on the lake fill with professors, writers, and families that have summered in Greensboro for generations. Willey's is one of Vermont's most famous country stores, along with Dan and Whit's in Norwich. "If Willey's doesn't have it, you don't need it," is the store's unwritten motto.

"Well," said Tom, "that's not true. We don't sell satellite dishes, suitcases or lumber. But we do carry strike anywhere matches."

In the accompanying photo, a young woman in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt is indeed riding a horse down Main Street; a few cars are parked outside Willey's in the background. Telephone wires bisect the sky. Miller chose to put the dark horse in the foreground, and his composition around the animal is flawless.

No doubt, in another half-century these images will have a nostalgic appeal, as do Miller's shots from post- WWII Paris. But even in present time, Vermont's small-town way of life, which this book clearly reveres, looks quaint. It seems that fate has handed Peter Miller the role of recording "that rare sense of place that is Vermont," as Jordan puts it in Gathering Places. If Miller and Preservation Trust have their way, that lifestyle will survive in more than just photographs.