Peter Miller Captures Vermont Life
Peter Miller slows his car to a stop. It’s a cloudless late-morning day in mid-June, and Miller pauses at the end of a long driveway on the outskirts of Wolcott, Vermont. The road to get here is a winding one, a route that cuts past old farms and retired pastures yellowed by acres of buttercups. It’s Miller’s home turf, so to speak–rural, unpolished in any kind of urban sense–the kind of country this longtime photographer has built a career around. And yet, as he has these last six decades, he still gets a little nervous before a shoot, even now, after all those years and all those portraits.
“What the hell am I going to shoot a picture of?” he asks himself, leaning forward slightly over his steering wheel. Today’s assignment is David Budbill, a poet whose work, like Miller’s, is rooted deeply in a Vermont that’s more Northeast Kingdom than Burlington. They aren’t great friends–in fact, they hardly know each other–but Miller has long felt a kinship with Budbill’s writing, and for the last few months has been eager to photograph him.
“He knows Vermont,” Miller says. “He’s very honest. He’s never been made poet laureate, and I want to know why.” The now-77-year-old Miller, who still takes pleasure in the edginess of his opinions, has his suspicions: “I think the Vermont literary mafia has blackballed him.”
Miller himself has experienced the challenges of trying to bring his work to the masses. In the late 1980s he set out to publish a book that told the story, in portraits and writing, of a Vermont that was rural, connected to the land by generations, and quickly vanishing. The compilation pulled together more than 30 years of Miller’s work, all of it black-and-white. He called it, simply, Vermont People, and no book publisher would touch it.
“They said it was about people who were nobodies, there wasn’t any color, and it was too regional,” he says. “I didn’t know a thing about book publishing, but that made me really mad, and so I said, ‘Godammit, I’ll publish the thing myself.'”
Which he did, refinancing his farmhouse studio in Colbyville to hire a designer, bring in an editor, and pay for the printing. For a journalist whose uncompromising commitment to his craft has cost him a marriage and any semblance of a fat retirement account, it may have been the best money he ever spent. Since its debut in November 1990, Vermont People has gone through five printings and sold more than 18,000 copies.
The book’s success was owed not just to the fact that many of Miller’s images looked as though they’d come out of the WPA documentary projects of the 1930s; its true worth stemmed from Miller’s introduction to people like Will and Rowena Austin, an older farming couple whom he’d first met and photographed when he was 17. Miller’s book gave access: showing the world not only who these Vermonters were, but how they lived, and what they thought about the Vermont they saw changing before them. Miller gave them what few of them had: a microphone.
“I grew up in a small town and have a feeling for Vermonters,” says Miller, who moved to Weston from New York with his family when he was 14. “I don’t have a feeling for city people. I just kept my mouth shut and let [the Vermonters] talk. They’d never been recognized before. They talked about seeing perfectly good houses being torn down. They talked about the newcomers and why they did this or that. I just let them tell their story.”
Miller’s methodology hasn’t changed much over the years. His follow-up books, including Vermont Farm Women, Vermont Gathering Places, and People of the Great Plains, followed a similar approach–as will a second edition of Vermont People, something Miller plans to publish later this year, with as many as 40 new portraits and stories.
Which is why he’s visiting David Budbill; he wants to include Budbill in the new book. He’s just not sure what form that will take. Dressed in khakis and an untucked white button-down shirt, with a beige baseball cap perched atop a full head of white hair, Miller pushes up the driveway, yet the uncertainty still lingers.
“What am I going to do?” he says to himself again as he pulls into Budbill’s property, a pleasant spot, with lawn and gardens and a house David and his wife, the painter Lois Eby, built in 1971. Budbill bounds out the front door, greets Miller, and then leads him inside, where the two men take seats around the kitchen table.
“So, what I want to do is talk to you,” says Miller, unveiling a yellow notepad and a digital recorder from his bag. “Ask you some questions and then photograph you.”
And so he does. Over the next hour the conversation touches on several different subjects, from the state of poetry to the new back-to-the-land movement to Budbill’s own migration to Vermont from his native Cleveland in 1969. Then the two men head back outside, where Miller, who hates shooting in direct sunlight, parks Budbill at the foot of an old apple tree in the front yard and begins photographing.
Working with two cameras, including an old Nikon film camera, hanging around his neck, Miller works efficiently and with a limber body that doesn’t betray his age. He shoots low, getting down at ground level with Budbill, then moves swiftly to a standing position for a different angle. Every frame brings a new opportunity for Miller–a chance to see in a new way a world he’s been looking at for a long time. “Hey, neat,” he says, peering through a long lens as he squares up a tight shot. When it’s over, Miller climbs back in his car and retraces the same familiar dirt road back home.
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