By James Finley
Scot Miller’s photography has been featured in many books and publications. He is the author of Walden: 150th Anniversary Illustrated Edition of the American Classic, Cape Cod: Illustrated Edition of the American Classic, and, most recently, Thoreau’s Maine Woods: A Photographic Journey Through an American Wilderness. Scot’s lifelong commitment to conservation is reflected in his photographic illustrations of Thoreau’s writings, his work for The Yosemite Fund, and his support for the Walden Woods Project, to which he offers his photography for their fundraising efforts and donations whenever a copy of his Thoreau books are sold. He and his wife Marilyn run Sun to Moon Gallery in Dallas, TX. The website for his new book can be found at www.thoreausmainewoods.com
JF: You’ve produced illustrated editions of Walden, Cape Cod, and now Thoreau’s Maine Woods: A Photographic Journey Through an American Wilderness. To start, could you please explain what drew you to the writings of Henry David Thoreau?
SM: I’ve always been interested in nature and conservation and I was reintroduced to Thoreau’s works in a big way in the late 1990s. I had been doing work with Yosemite Conservancy for a number of years in California and through that was introduced to the Walden Woods Project. They liked what I had done with my photography and helping nonprofit organizations and invited me to visit the Thoreau Institute with my wife, Marilyn. We immediately fell in love with the place and began photographing the pond and woods and helping the Walden Woods Project and the Thoreau Society. In 2001, my wife and I opened Sun to Moon Gallery, a photography gallery in Dallas. We brought Ron Bosco, Tom Harris, and Bradley Dean to Dallas and held a series of roundtables, which was great. Since then I’ve become a consummate reader of Thoreau and collector of Thoreau books. I always had an appreciation but have been totally hooked for the last 15 years.
JF: What was distinct about your Maine Woods project compared to the other two Thoreau works?
SM: This was by far the most challenging of his books to illustrate. It took several years and was logistically difficult. First of all, Thoreau covered such a wide area. This is still an area today that is largely wild and unsettled. The Maine Woods is often described as one of Thoreau’s “excursion” books. I would call it more an “exploration.” These were trips into a largely unknown area. I think that Thoreau isn’t given enough credit at times for the adventurous side of what he did and how hard some of his journeys were. Another point of difference is that I was able to bring aerial photographs into the mix more than ever before. In such an expansive place, I think it helps to bring perspective. Additionally, this book was the first that I published with Levenger Press. Because of the extensive use of color photographs, these are expensive books to produce. There aren’t many publishers left who will do these kinds of books. I was very, very thankful for them and I’m proud the book was printed in the United States using “chain-of-custody” paper from well-managed forests. As someone who loves books, who has a house, I can’t be against logging. But I can be for buying from companies that manage forests responsibly.
JF: You spent approximately seven years taking the photographs for this edition. Can you give us a sense of what that experience was like for you?
SM: If I had to put it in a few words, I would say incredible, challenging, rewarding. In fact, I’ve been going through some withdrawal lately. I’m not getting to Maine quite as much as I was and I miss it. It’s an incredible place. It’s still a place that has large stretches of free-flowing rivers and incredibly beautiful natural lakes and wildlife. I live in Texas, and I love living here, but we have one natural lake in the whole state of Texas. In Maine, there are hundreds and hundreds of beautiful natural lakes. After photographing the Maine woods for seven years, I had literally thousands of images to choose from for this book. I culled them down to 200 or so, which I printed out in baseball card size. For several months our dining room table was laid out with these and I went chapter by chapter selecting images and matching them with quotations that I had chosen as wanting to illustrate. It was interesting how the first 60-70% were so easy to do, as Thoreau’s writings are so descriptive that it often seemed like he was describing a specific photograph of mine. But the last 30-40% percent were illustrating more esoteric quotations and more of a challenge. Another part of the experience that really has been important to me is getting involved with the Penobscot Nation. As I read and reread the book, it became clear to me that I couldn’t do the book justice without delving more into that aspect of the book. I ended up going to the Penobscot Nation Museum and meeting James Neptune, the museum coordinator, and we struck up a friendship. He was really good about telling me about his culture, giving feedback, and allowing me to photograph artifacts.
JF: The Great North Woods of Maine have been significantly transformed in the century and a half since Thoreau visited. How did these changes affect your project?
SM: There are photographs in the book that are clearly of scenes that Thoreau might have seen and there are many others that allude to history since his time. Some things have changed and some haven’t. Access is easier, but it’s still a relatively wild place. One thing that is hard to appreciate is the size and scope of the place that Thoreau writes about in the book. There’s something in the neighborhood of ten million acres in northern Maine with no local government and fewer than ten thousand people living there—they call it the UT, unorganized territory. Even today, you can get yourself into trouble in this place if you’re not careful and it requires careful planning to travel over the territory that Thoreau writes about. I recorded it with both film cameras and video. Because I was carrying a lot of gear, I couldn’t do it exactly as Thoreau did it, by canoe. The good news / bad news is that there are lots of logging roads now. Most of them are unmarked and you can literally get a hundred miles out from nowhere and if you aren’t paying attention and keeping track of where you are, you can easily get turned around.
JF: You said in a recent interview: “I want to reintroduce people to his writings. So much is still appropriate.” To your mind, what is most appropriate about Thoreau’s writings?
SM: As a lover of art and of our National Parks, I’ve been fortunate to spend a lot of time in Yosemite and other parks. I am an advocate for wilderness preservation but decided not to personally advocate for that in this book. In the end it’s all about Thoreau’s writing and it stands on its own. At the same time, in my introduction, I cite Thoreau biographer Robert D. Richardson who credits the “Chesuncook” chapter, in which Thoreau calls for the creation of national preserves, as one of the founding statements of the conservation movement and “not only our earliest but also our sanest, most balanced call for preservation of the wilderness.” That alone, is just huge. John Muir, when he went to Alaska on one of his trips had a copy of The Maine Woods with him. A few years ago, I went to the University of the Pacific in California which holds John Muir’s library. I was able to say “can you bring me John Muir’s personal copy of Walden? Can you bring me his copy of The Maine Woods?” What amazed me is that when you open up these books they’re filled profusely with pencil marks and notations in the columns. It was obvious that Muir was greatly influenced by Thoreau and we all know what Muir went on to do, including helping to create the national park system.
JF. How has Thoreau’s writing and your interest in Thoreau shaped your work as a photographer?
SM: As a photographer, I admire how he was such a great observer of his surroundings, and one thing I learned that has impacted my photography since then is the importance of slowing down, observing nature, and spending greater amounts of time in places. When you stay somewhere for awhile and you’re not just walking through, you end up seeing much more. When working on the Walden book, I was standing on Pine Hill, photographing fallen birch trees and was there for 30-45 minutes working on the same subject in the changing light. After I finished photographing and put the camera away in my bag, I turned around and right behind me, literally 6 feet away, was an even more beautiful scene and I thought: “there’s the photo I was supposed to take!” I took the camera back out and that photograph ended up in the book. Thoreau’s idea of just slowing down and observing has had a great affect on my life in general but it has also made me a better photographer.
JF: Your photographs are currently being exhibited at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in the “Thoreau’s Maine Woods: A Journey in Photographs with Scot Miller” exhibition, which runs through September 1, 2014. What do you see as the benefits of “exhibiting” this material rather than printing it or uploading it to a website?
SM: I love books. I’m a collector of books and I love doing these books. I’m fortunate to have had Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the past and Levenger Press publish these books, but when you see my large-format prints hanging on the gallery wall, they take on a new meaning and have great impact. Some are 30” by 40” and larger, and there’s one print that’s a wall mural. For me, it’s also an opportunity to reach a larger audience. One thing I love about the Harvard Museum of Natural History is that the creation of the exhibit is a team effort and they have a great team. They’re big on interpretation, for all ages. You’re not going to see just photographs but also interpretive panels about the Penobscot Nation, Thoreau’s three trips, and more. The museum has also drawn from their collections with an actual plant specimen that Thoreau picked in the Maine woods and a snowshoe owned by Thoreau and made by the Penobscot Indians on display. Early on I wanted the team at Harvard to know how important the Penobscots are to me and to the book, and so as a result a second exhibition opened in April at the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, focusing on the enduring importance of rivers and birch-bark canoes in Penobscot tribal life and on relationships between the tribe and non-Indians, including Thoreau. Now through September, people can go to Harvard, see the Maine Woods exhibition at the Museum of Natural History and then just a few doors down they can go see the second exhibit. For Thoreau lovers it’s a real opportunity. And it’s at his alma mater too. There’s nothing like seeing the large-format fine prints it in person. The photographs look great in the book but the ultimate thing is to get the book and go to the exhibit.
JF: And maybe even take a trip up to Maine.
SM: Absolutely. It’s a wonderful place. The last line of my Introduction urges you to “put your explorer hat on and check it out!”