Peter Miller's new book of essays trains a wistful eye on Vermont
Peter Miller has slept in the same Colbyville house since 1968, save for a few years in New York City. Back when central Vermont was more rural, the photographer-writer would sit at his desk watching farm animals. “I learned a lot about sex,” he recalls wryly, referring to a 1970 essay he penned about a pig that “porked” a sheep. Over the years, Miller, now 74, made a few adjustments to his 1850 former farmhouse, a shaded residence near the Ben & Jerry’s factory on Route 100. He transformed his attic into cozy living quarters, while leaving the first floor for studio and office space. Last December, he converted part of the downstairs into a gallery for his black-and-white photographs.
Miller is best known as a photographer whose iconic images have been showcased in attractive picture books such as Vermont People (1990), Vermont Farm Women (2000) and Vermont Gathering Places (2006). His works tend to focus on rural, and often disappearing, ways of life in the Green Mountain State. Perhaps that’s why the state legislature honored him as “Vermonter of the Year” in 2006.
But Miller is a capable writer, too; his lucid prose anchors his photo books, and he’s contributed to a variety of local publications for years. Some of Miller’s deadpan treatises on his beloved state address how its spirit has withered, in his opinion, since he first made its acquaintance. Twenty-eight of his essays were recently published, by his own Silver Print Press, as a collection called Nothing Hardly Ever Happens in Colbyville, Vermont.
“I’d probably be a much better writer if that’s all I did, and I’d probably be a much better photographer if that’s all I did,” sums up Miller, a soft-spoken guy with gray hair and glasses. “But the way I’m structured, the two work together.”
A few Sundays ago, Miller threw a book-release party for Nothing Hardly at, appropriately, his home in Colbyville (the older name for what’s now officially a corner of Waterbury). He donned an orange ski jacket and strolled outside, where a caterer was serving roasted pig, dilly beans and other homey fare to the neighbors, writers, artists and others who gathered to help him celebrate. Inside the gallery, assistants offered deals on photos and autographed books.
Miller has grown wary of the changes around Waterbury since he settled there. Sure, he likes George Woodard, a nearby dairy farmer, actor and filmmaker who blurbed Nothing Hardly (“An honest and sometimes raw anthology from the Colbyville curmudgeon”), and who helped himself to pork at the book-release party. But Miller has never gotten over the arrival of tourist-friendly Ben & Jerry’s, three decades ago. And don’t get him started on Route 100 traffic, which has increased from about 500 cars per day 40 years ago to 14,500 today, according to the Vermont Agency of Transportation.
A few of the essays in Nothing Hardly have appeared in outdoor magazines, as well as Vermont Life and Stowe Reporter. Others were never published, or were written for the book. Many stories take place in the forest or atop ski slopes. But the book is more than just a quirky portrait of one man’s life in the Green Mountains; it’s an ode to his Vermont, a place sometimes susceptible and sometimes stubbornly resistant to sprawl, SUVs and other accoutrements of gentrification.
Miller likes to present his critiques of bourgeois values as snarky pastoral laments. In “The Dropout Capital of the East,” about Stowe in the 1960s, he complains that “tract-mansion acne” is now a blemish on his beloved terrain. “I’m from Vermont,” he concludes. “I do what I want, but it just ain’t as easy.” In “I Poach: Confessions of a Duck Hunting Addict Gone Astray” (an essay rejected by Vermont Life in the ’70s), Miller chronicles illegal hunts on land owned by the venerable Webb family of Shelburne Farms. “Mr. Webb, have you ever eaten black duck that has been poached?” he asks in a letter he sent to Webb. “There’s no finer-tasting bird in the world, particularly if it’s been simmering on your property.”
Of course, even Miller admits his “woodchuck” writing voice is affected. After all, he’s not a native. Miller and his family moved to Weston, Vermont, from Connecticut when he was a teenager. After studying literature at the University of Toronto, he went to Paris, where he snapped shots of Camus and Sartre under guidance from Canadian portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh. Following a stint as an army photographer (the experience informed his 1999 memoir The First Time I Saw Paris), Miller moved to New York City to work as a reporter for Life from 1958 to ’64.
Rather than discrediting his adopted old-timer tone, though, Miller’s cosmopolitan background lends his writing a comic sparkle. Consider his paean to poaching: Even while bemoaning “flatlanders,” he suggests, with tongue in cheek, that black ducks are “one of the world’s great delicacies when served with sauce à la Grand Marnier.” In another piece, Miller satirically suggests an anti-gay-marriage friend loves his male dog enough to marry him, but won’t admit it: “Mr. Ross is not in the closet, but he is in the doghouse when it comes to canines.”
Not all the writing is so flip; sometimes Miller’s breezy tone leads him straight into heady emotional terrain. In “The Suicide,” for example, what begins as a light meditation on hunting turns into a heartbreaking elegy for a man who set himself on fire in a Vermont forest. In “Spring Skiing,” a 1980 article for Ski Magazine, a friend’s death prompts an epiphany. “Always look ahead during the run,” Miller tells himself, “for the next slope could be the best yet, and the best runs come at the end of the season . . .”
By contrast, Miller’s eulogy for the Twin Towers is so earnest it feels tired. And after reading in a 1996 essay, “I miss the sweet smell of fallen leaves, cured by frost and sun . . . within the woods and mowings of Vermont, hidden so far away,” one might be forgiven for preferring Miller the Curmudgeon to Miller the Lyric Poet.
On a recent, post-book-party afternoon in Miller’s studio, he revealed that his essay collection isn’t the only archival project on his docket. His drafty rooms are filled with filing cabinets that contain old photographs, some dating back to the 1950s. In a back corner near his massive digital printer, manila folders are labeled by subject matter, such as “Sleigh Ride ’69” or “Route 66 Oklahoma.” Miller’s assistant, Amber Sulick, has been sifting through the prints since this summer.
“For an individual artist, it’s pretty comprehensive,” said the cheerful twentysomething, who has a master’s degree in photo archiving. “It seems as though you’ve saved almost everything.”
“I could drop off dead, so I’ve got to get my stuff together,” Miller replied laconically.
The two have been scanning the photographs, but it would cost at least $50,000 to file them in a digital archive, and Miller doesn’t have the money. Brent Bjorkman, executive director of the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, visited Miller’s studio last year and thinks such an archive would be a valuable addition to his institution’s collection. But he admits it will be hard to solicit grant money in such a “tight funding environment.”
Miller isn’t holding his breath; he’s already considering several other projects, such as a book about alcoholism, a book of photographs inspired by Robert Frost’s poems, and a collection of stories about his days in 1980s New York. In the meantime, Miller’s multi-room gallery offers a visual survey of his adult life.
Just before sunset, the photographer led a tour through the space. One room offers up prints of that infamous animal sex act he witnessed in 1970. Another chronicles his travels among French wine-country peasants in the 1950s. In the last, there’s a recent 20-by-34-inch portrait of George Woodard’s 1950 Ford pickup, as well as a photo of Fred Tuttle, a Tunbridge dairy farmer famous for his performance in Man with a Plan, a 1996 film by Tuttle’s neighbor John O’Brien. A touching account of Tuttle’s funeral appears in Nothing Hardly. In Miller’s image, though, Tuttle stands in front of his Tunbridge barn holding a framed picture of his father, Joe — an image in which Joe holds a photograph of his father. It’s classic Miller: reverence for Yankee tradition served with a dash of humor and a keen sense of composition.
Miller stared at this print and sighed, then lamented how art seems less important during hard economic times. “Nobody’s buying anything now,” he said. “What they need is fuel oil.”
Miller climbed a spiral staircase and shuffled around his apartment in the twilight. The space is a patchwork of nooks; some contain photography gear, others magazines, file folders or heaps of clothing. It was chilly enough to keep one’s sweater on. Glancing outside at some leafless apple trees, Miller explained that his two daughters, who live in London and Oregon, respectively, badger him to move to a warmer climate, or at least into a smaller house. “Dad, you don’t need this place, you don’t need to do all this,” Miller mimicked.
“They want me to downsize my life,” he said. “I really can’t do that until I get my archiving done.”