It started as a fishing trip. But it turned out to be one of the most revealing photography expeditions David Miller has ever had, a remarkable and unanticipated integration of almost every turning point in his professional career, which spans from the Peace Corps to academia to banking.
“Mongolia is famous for fishing,” says Miller, the founder of Gallery 14 in Hopewell, where Miller will exhibit photographs from his three-week trek to Mongolia this past fall. An opening reception takes place on Friday, January 5, with an artist’s talk on Saturday and Sunday, January 6 and7. “Most Mongols are Buddhist; they don’t kill things that don’t blink. In other words, fish. But in north central Mongolia there is a kind of salmon called taimen, which grows very large — they eat other fish and small rodents that wander into the water.” The Mongols don’t fish for taimen, but as a concession to the Americans who do there are areas where one can fish for taimen, but only with a strict catch-and-release policy, Miller explains.
Miller, who has fished all over the world, from Montana and Wyoming to Slavinia, Argentina, the Falklands, and Kanchatka (a peninsula of Russia), discovered at the Somerset Fly Fishing Show that the Livingston, Montana-based Sweetwater Travel Company, founded by the three Vermillion brothers, manages 70 miles of the Eg-Ur River, a three-hour helicopter trip from the capital city of Ulaanbataar, where they have set up three camps for anglers. They have also set up a conservation fund to rebuild a local monastery.
“There were only four of us in one camp for a week,” says Miller, “a couple from Upper Black Eddy (PA), coincidentally, and a professor from the University of Rochester.” The anglers stay in native structures called yurts, a kind of circular tent made of wood lattice rings covered in hand-made felt.
“Our goal was to catch taimen, which can be anywhere from 12 inches to 40 inches in length. I caught the biggest that week: 50 inches and 45 pounds. I call it my ‘half and half’ — it took half an hour to reel it in (using a squirrel fly along the surface) and it took me half a mile down the river.” And yes, Miller threw it back (the camp has a strict catch-and-release policy) but not before having a fellow camper take a photo of himself with his conquest. “We resuscitate the fish by holding it with its head upstream in a good current to oxygenate; when it wriggles, it’s ready to let go.”
Yes, the fishing was fine, but Miller’s real treat was still to come — the Golden Eagle Festival in Bayan Ulgii, Mongolia’s westernmost province, where the people are 90 percent Kazakhs and speak Kazakh and Russian. “The festival takes place over two days, and they show how the Kazakhs train eagles, which weigh about 13 pounds, to attack.” There are several competitions designed to show off the eagle’s skills. In one a Kazakh, often in native dress, rides on horseback, dragging a fox or wolfhound skin, which the eagles dive for. In another, the Kazakh might hold a handkerchief in his outstretched hand, which the eagles dive for. The best three eagles from the competitions are put on top of a mountain, and a muzzled wolf cub is let go to run towards the mountain, all in front of the spectators. Don’t worry; Miller says it’s all for show, and the little cub does not get killed.
Miller captured some spectacular images of the Kazakhs on horsebacks with eagles on the intricately embroidered sleeves of their jackets. After the festival, Miller and his driver, Od, stayed on another week, with three memorable day trips, says Miller. The first was to see some bronze age petroglyphs that Od, 22, had found. They traveled only along tracks, as there are no roads there. Another day, they went to Tolba-Ur, a tiny settlement with only six yurts, and some cattle and sheep.
“My guide had said, ‘Would you like to visit my family in the north?’ He had not been to visit his uncle for 10 years.” So their third day trip was a three-hour drive into the mountains to a little village beside a lake, which was frozen. (Incidentally, Miller’s wife, who is not an angler, chose to take a jaunt to the South Pacific with a friend during Miller’s trek to outer Mongolia.) Od’s uncle is head of the local border guards. It just so happened that the day Miller and Od went to visit, Od’s uncle was commemorating the fifth anniversary of his son’s death at age 19. Also visiting that day for the special occasion was Od’s cousin from Ulaanbataar, who, says Miller, cut a remarkable contrast to her surroundings in stiletto heels and chic black slacks.
“They drink a lot of vodka, and have a particular ritual to welcome guests,” Miller says. “The host fills a silver bowl lined with copper with vodka, makes a toast. Od’s uncle offered it first to me, then to Od, then to his wife.” Od then offered to take Miller, the cousin, and the rest of the family to see his grandfather’s brother, who lived another hour’s drive north, less than a mile from the Russian border. This great-uncle, who had been an accountant for 35 years in a village, went back to the traditional lifestyle when he retired, to this extremely remote outpost, where Od’s family had lived for literally hundreds of years. The great-uncle lived in a yurt and had 600 sheep and 300 cattle and “he didn’t know how many” goats. Only it wasn’t just any yurt. “He had a solar collector, which charged batteries to run lights and a satellite TV. They clicked on the soccer game while we were there.”
Miller says that the great-uncle made a milky, salty tea in a wok on a little stove. Then he swabbed out the wok and whipped up some steamed mutton dumplings. They use dung for heating and cooking, but it smells sweet because the cows eat grass. “It had a significance to it, going through a timeless ritual.”
Miller was to witness another timeless ritual — killing a sheep. “Od said, ‘We’re going to kill the sheep the Buddhist way.’ One of Od’s cousins held the sheep on the ground, at the head with his left arm around the sheep’s front legs, and Od held the hind feet stretched out. The cousin shaved a rectangular patch on the sheep’s belly. Then he cut a slit in his chest, and simply reached in with his right hand and stopped the sheep’s heart. It’s like the sheep just fell asleep. Very peaceful. No violence to it at all. There was very little blood. They then slit open the skin and butchered it right there on its own skin.” At the end of the day on the drive back, Od told Miller, “You’re the first foreigner who’s ever been there.”
But in many ways, Miller isn’t that much of a foreigner. Fluent in Russian, Miller likes to tell a story about Roman Kaplan, the owner of the renowned Russian Samovar, a restaurant in New York on West 52nd Street, which attracts a steady stream of celebrities, from Russians like Mikhail Baryshnikov and Maria Sharapova to stars like Nicole Kidman and Nicolas Cage. “One night we were sitting in the booth where Roman kind of reigns and people stop by and sit with him,” Miller says. “After all the Americans had left, Roman remarked, ‘Ah, now all the Americans are gone.’ And I said, ‘Roman, what about me?’ And he said, ‘You’re not an American; you’re an emigre.’”
Miller grew up in Indiana, the son of a math teacher and principal, and a housewife. He has one older sister. Eager to get out of Indiana, Miller passed the exams for the Foreign Service but this was at the time of the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War, and Foreign Service training was cancelled. Instead Miller attended DePauw University, graduating in 1964 with a degree in Russian and German. “I was driven academically — another way to get out of Indiana,” he says. He earned his masters in Slavic language and Russian area studies at Columbia in 1966, where he met his wife, Katherine, at Columbia’s international house. They got married and went to Afghanistan, where Miller taught at Kabul University for two years.
It was there that Miller got back in touch with his inner photographer, a passion cultivated since his childhood years of leafing through Life and Look magazines.
“I was always interested in photojournalism,” he says. In his artist’s statement for the exhibit he says: “My photograhpic identity emerged while living in Afghanistan. There I was driven to capture the impressions the exotic street scenes made upon me; in the process I became a ‘street photographer.’ By photographing on the streets of the many countries that my life and work subsequently took me to, I slowly realized that my camera was primarily a means of interacting with the people I met and the camera my notebook to record aspects of my travels.”
While in Afghanistan Miller met Jerry Bremer, then in his first post at the American embassy in Kabul, and Bremer’s uncle, Leon Poullada, former ambassador to Togo, who was in Afghanistan doing a Ph.D. at Princeton. He and Bremer and “a bunch of expatriates” started a barbershop group, calling themselves the Kabulaires. “I remember we were invited to sing at a Christmas party at U.S. Agency for International Development. We all wore red vests from a used clothing stall at the bazaar.” (Miller’s son, Ashley, inherited the Miller tenor gene and sang in the Princeton High School Choir, touring with them twice to Europe.)
While in Kabul Miller wrote to Jim Billington, then a professor of Russian history at Princeton (now the Librarian of Congress since 1989). “I basically talked my way into Princeton,” Miller says. He earned a master’s and Ph.D. in Russian history in 1974, while his wife taught ESL in Princeton. During that time he was awarded a Fulbright to Moscow for a year, and then started teaching Russian history at Rutgers, where he stayed for approximately five years, during which time his daughter, Rebecca, a clinical psychologist at Yale Medical School, and son, Ashley, an environmental lawyer on Park Avenue in New York, were born.
Just as academia began to leave a bad taste in Miller’s mouth, he spoke to a former colleague who was now an economist at Chase. “In the interview when I said I was from Princeton, the person interviewing me said, ‘My uncle’s a professor there.’” That clinched the deal, and Miller began the second phase of his career — as a credit officer in Monrovia, Liberia, from 1981 to 1983, when his kids were about 5 and 7. Back in New York he continued to work in the Africa division until it was closed in 1990. A vice president, Miller was moved into the credit audit division, where he was in charge of 50 young credit-trained people who conducted reviews of loans worldwide. “I would assemble a team, who would then, say, audit credit cards in Hong Kong for two weeks, then go on to places like Rio; Santiago, Chile; Frankfurt, and London. It was a great lifestyle for these kids. There they were working all over the world on expense accounts. Several of them went on to Wharton and Harvard Business School.”
Miller stayed at Chase until 1996, when the bank merged with Chemical Bank. Miller was approached by a Russian friend and was recruited to become chief credit officer for a bank in Moscow, where he stayed until the crash in 1998. Back in Princeton Miller became a member of the Princeton Photography Club. He and Ed Greenblat, another member, started an offshoot discussion group and then decided “it would be great to have a place to show our photographs.” They found a second-story space at 14 Mercer Street in Hopewell, naming it Gallery 14 — and recently celebrated the gallery’s fifth anniversary.
The next stamps on Miller’s passport will come from Burma and Cambodia later this month. He will give a talk on his Mongolia trip in February to the Theater Gordon Fly Fishers at the Union League in New York in February. He is going to be interviewed by the BBC next week in New York for a program called “Outlook.” And he was just asked to give a workshop in July at the Photographers’ Formulary in Montana, an organization first established to create and sell the materials needed to preserve alternative printing methods like silver gelatin and platinum palladium, then expanded to include workshops. After talking with them on the phone, Miller says he sent an E-mail and attached a photo from his Mongolia trip. That clinched it.
“Mongolia: Where Kazakhs Hunt with Eagles,” photography by David Miller. Friday, January 5, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell. On view through February 4. Also, meet the photographer, Saturday and Sunday, January 6 and 7, 1 to 3 p.m. 609-333-8511. Gallery hours: Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.