Ilsley exhibits 60 years of Peter Miller’s iconic Vermont portraits

VERMONT — It may seem trite to point out that the world has changed drastically in the past 60 years. But it seems equally impossible to begin considering Waterbury-based photographer Peter Miller’s “A Lifetime of Vermont People” with any other thought.
Miller — who bought his first camera on a whim at age 14 in Weston, when his mother sent him with money to replace a stolen hunting rifle — has self-published a collection of his most iconic black-and-white portraits of Vermonters.
He captured those images over nearly 65 years, beginning in 1959. Many are included in an exhibition called “A Lifetime of Vermont People” that is making its way through libraries around the state and is now on display at Middlebury’s Ilsley Public Library until the end of September.
Among them, weathered men in suspenders squint from in front of 18th-century barns, hunters squat with rifle in hand next to a fallen buck, a woman with fine wrinkles and a frank smirk rocks in a chair. Accompanying the photographs are evocative, detailed essays Miller has written about his subjects.
“We have an endangered species of native Vermonters,” said Miller, 79.
Miller will be at Ilsley Library for a book reading and reception at 5 p.m. on Sept. 13. The exhibit debuted at the Frog Hollow Gallery in Burlington in June, and is travelingt to Manchester, Middlebury, Brattleboro, Woodstock, Stowe, St. Johnsbury, Derby Line and Barre.
“Every library in the state should have this book, because it’s a record of the old Vermont and a look at what’s going to come down the pike,” said Miller.
Miller said he has watched with trepidation the development and gentrification of his home state for decades, starting with the introduction of the interstate in the 1960s and culminating in the recently announced $500 million economic development plan in the Northeast Kingdom.
“Look at them,” the photographer says of his subjects. “They’re all rural. They’re not in Burlington or somewhere — Burlington’s not part of Vermont, it’s part of Burlington. Ever since the interstate went in, gentrification has been slithering up the interstate like a snake.”
Miller’s collection, with its title, would beg for an answer to the question “What is a Vermonter?” even if its author, who so firmly identifies himself as one, had a less complicated biography.
He was born in 1934 in Manhattan, raised in New Jersey, and arrived in Weston when he was 14. He boarded at Burr and Burton in Manchester, and then attended the University of Toronto, where he apprenticed with famed photographer Yousuf Karsh.
In 1955, Miller joined the U.S. Army, where he graduated first in his class as an army photographer and was stationed in Paris. In 1958, after moving back to New York and deciding to pursue a career in writing, he was hired as a reporter at Life magazine at the height of its popularity.
Miller credits Karsh almost exclusively as an influence on his portraiture. He accompanied Karsh as Karsh photographed luminaries such as Albert Camus, Pope John and Picasso.
“He smoked all my cigarettes!” Miller recalled of Picasso. “I should’ve made him sign the packet.”
But Miller found that city life, and photographing celebrities, wasn’t for him.
“I preferred the simple people,” he said. “I like Vermonters. I understand them, and they understand me.”
He quit Life in 1963 to move his family back to Vermont. He has been back for nearly 50 years now, but may soon retreat yet further into the state permanently — he has spent time in Craftsbury for many years. For financial and social reasons, he says he will soon sell his Waterbury house and look for land in the Northeast Kingdom, where the roads are worse and the winters harsher. It will, he hopes, keep out some of the sprawl.
Miller believes there is an isolated, independent spirit to the people who choose to live in what outsiders call the “backwoods,” and he strongly associates that spirit with Vermonters — as he puts it in the introduction to his book, Vermonters “love their state for its beauty, but they revere it more for the freedom and privacy it has given them.”
“At some point I began to realize that everyone I photographed was self-employed,” Miller added while speaking to the Independent, pointing to the farmers, lumberjacks and artists that fill the pages of the book. “That’s what Vermont was developed on. That was the backbone of Vermont.”
Miller began self-publishing his photography books of Vermonters in the late 1980s. As Rob Hunter, the executive director of the Frog Hollow Gallery, puts it, Miller was “a pioneer” in the field of self-publishing. Miller was one of the first to put out a quality product without an established publishing company, albeit in collaboration with designers, editors and publishers that he had befriended during his reporting and photography careers in New York.
Miller said he self-published only after the publishers he knew rejected his idea — to make a book about Vermonters — in its entirety.
“They said I wouldn’t sell 2,000 in 10 years,” Miller recalled. “They said if you were going to sell Vermont, you had to have red barns and cow pastures and fall leaves, or no one will buy it.”
Miller thought it over, and then decided, quite simply, that he did not agree.
“I thought, they’re in their offices,” he said. “They don’t know what’s going on.”
He sold out of the first 3,000-copy edition of his first book, “Vermont People,” within six weeks. He has sold over 15,000 copies to date, and his follow-up on female Vermont farmers was also well received.
As the “Lifetime of Vermont People” collection, which includes the most iconic photographs from Miller’s earlier books, makes its journey around the state, Miller hopes it will remind its audiences to be mindful of how the state is moving forward. He fears that the way of life, and the people that he depicts, will disappear.
“I don’t know what will happen, but I don’t want to live in the suburbs,” Miller said. “Northern Vermont, you can still get away fast.”
He recalled attending a recent event in Barton, with “families smiling” and the community bonding away from any crowds, traffic and pretense.
Waterbury, now a bedroom community for Montpelier and Burlington in Miller’s estimation, no longer offers the rooted sense of community, nor the ability to “get away fast” from the crowds that drew him back after New York.
“Vermont 100, outside my house, is a very angry road these days,” he said.
When Miller first encountered the deeply rooted people that he would begin photographing as a teenager, his family had recently lost his father to alcoholism in New Jersey. He also remembers that the intimacy of a photographer-and-subject dynamic helped to foster his connection to the Vermonters he encountered in Weston that became his newfound tribe.
“I’m good at disappearing into the background,” Miller says. “I guess I became a Vermonter because I really liked the hillside Vermonters. I had a father who was an alcoholic … and, I learned this (while photographing) the Great Plains, the Indians whose families were destroyed, they had these extended surrogate families. These people I photographed, they became my extended family.”
Xian Chiang-Waren may be reached at [email protected].

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