A farm kid who always wanted to be a science teacher, still drive a combine, handle and take pictures of snakes and became a rodeo photographer in retirement.
That’s Larry L. Miller in nutshell, or tongue-in-cheek a snakeskin if that’s more appropriate.
While broadly concisely accurate, there’s actually much more to the rest of the story about Mr. Miller, as he’s best known by his thousands of students in a 36-year Kansas teaching career .
Now, Miller is likely most readily identified with his wife, Suzanne, for their Kansas Heritage Photography business headquartered out of their home at Wakarusa.
Yet, the family entrepreneurship title is a bit misleading in itself. Even if their specialty is making memorable pictures of the sunflower state’s legacy, the Millers are much more diverse than that.
Extensive is what they record as images for perpetuity, but concise to say it ranges from the most enhancing and exclusively personal portraits to widely diverse depictions of nature, with work, friends and acquaintances the nation’s width and depth.
“I grew up near Portland in Sumner County and spent much of my free time outside hunting, fishing, hiking, and just exploring our small farm and the land we rented,” Miller reminisced.
“We raised a variety of farm animals and always had a couple dogs that were part of our family. Along with most farm crops, we had a big garden. Obviously, I liked the farm, but I always loved science and knew I wanted to be a teacher from an early age,” Miller contended.
From the one-room White Horn School, Miller went to public school at South Haven, “My true love for science dates to the ninth grade where Mr. (Dick) Dale made science ‘fun’ with lots of experiments, interesting stories and demonstrations. Then, I decided I wanted to do the same for my students, and I hope I have,” said Miller who graduated from high school at Wellington, 1967, and Southwestern College, Winfield, 1971.
“Science and math both taught by Mr. (Edward) Foster were my favorite college courses. We took a field trip to Florida, and that set precedence for my interest in nature in that part of the country,” Miller reflected.
“Mr. Foster also intrigued my interest in both photography and herpetology,” Miller appreciatively added. For those who don’t know, herpetology is the study of reptiles, turtles, and amphibians.
Larry Miller of Wakarusa is shown with a harmless Western Coachwhip Snake as part of a program presented for the Hardtner, Kansas, Public Library a few years ago. (Photo by Suzanne L. Miller.)
“I’d always liked anything to do with nature and had taken pictures with a cheap box camera, but Mr. Foster explained that photographs would be beneficial in classroom teaching and showing as part of other life endeavors,” Miller continued.
Teaching elementary classes at Caldwell from his first assignment until 1990, with summers spent driving combines in the state’s leading wheat producing Sumner County, Miller then taught science at Topeka Collegiate School through 2001. A science teaching position followed in the Shawnee County’s Seaman School District where he taught at Northern Hills Junior High School.
“Fun” is a frequent word in Miller’s conversation. “I want to do what is fun, and teaching has generally always been fun for me,” insisted Miller, who married Suzanne in 1994.
He retired from fulltime teaching in 2008, but has continued doing some substituting. Suzanne retired from the Topeka Public Library a couple of years ago.
This has given the couple more time for their hobby-business turned a bit more professional perhaps, yet always with the “fun” aspect of key influence. “We both like animals and nature, and especially like photographing nature,” Miller qualified.
“My first published photo was of a rural electric line that had been shot by someone, and was frayed to the point of almost breaking. That was in 1971, and I sent it to our REA and told them where it was located, so they could repair it. They asked if they could publish the photo in their magazine, and when it came out I was surprised to see my name credited as the photographer,” Miller smiled.
Since that kick-off byline success, Miller’s photo work has been demanded throughout the country in print, those he’s photographed, and uniquely significant by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
“I spent my summers for a number of years driving a combine, and then I was offered contracts conducting non-game wildlife research for Wildlife and Parks, which has really been a lot of ‘fun,’ too,” commented Miller, admitting that his interest and knowledge in herpetology has further attributed to those projects.
Back-grounding a bit, Miller remembered, “I’d always been interested in snakes, but could only identify a few. Then, one of my students shortly after I started teaching brought a coffee can in with a snake in it and asked me if I knew what kind it was?
“That was a beautiful three-foot Prairie King, and after that I’d frequently have people asking me questions about snakes and other reptiles. Consequently, my interest and knowledge continued to expand, as well,” Miller said.
“The Kansas Herpetological Society (KHS) was founded in 1974 by Joseph T. Collins of the Museum of Natural History at the University of Kansas. I met Joe that year and have been involved with the KHS ever since. Over the years I traveled to at least 20 states with Joe, doing herpetological research and documenting the events with my photography. Most of our work was in Kansas and Florida,” said Miller, adding that Collins passed away in 2012, while doing research near Apalachicola, Florida.
Relating a recent effort, Miller detailed: “Suzanne and I were conducting a non-game herpetological research project for Wildlife and Parks and camping at a small campsite in Hardtner. The librarian asked us if we would give a program for a summer group that was meeting at the library. We presented an hour program using some of the animals we had captured the day before. Animals captured during the research project were released after being photographed and data about them recorded.”
Then, Miller recounted another excursion: “We were at Wakualla Springs, Florida, in mid-February to do some nature and wildlife photography. This was our tenth visit there since we first started doing research in Florida in 2008. Most years we have visited at least two times, because there is such a large diversity of animals that call the area their home.”
Photographs were always an influential part of Miller’s teaching procedures never remising his college instructor Ed Foster’s advice. “I utilized photographs to help emphasize certain science projects and of the students to recognize their participation,” Miller noted.
Thus, as students and others were aware of his picture taking abilities, Miller was called on to photograph sports events, all school activities, yearbook preparation, graduation portraits and the list seems unending.
As would be suspected, demand came for doing wedding photography. “I’ve photographed weddings, but I shy away from them now, because of the time demands. We do take on smaller weddings and those of friends. But, we’re selective; we have that prerogative now,” related Miller, adding that family portraits are included in his diverse repertoire.
Opportunity to photograph a rodeo at Clayton, New Mexico, when there doing grassland research photography, the Millers accepted what was initially considered a challenge. “It turned out being a lot of ‘fun,’ and our work was very well accepted. Although we always liked horses and all animals, rodeo is different. And, we are going to do more,” Miller promised.
Actually, the Miller calendar now has May 16 and 17 blocked off. “We’re photographing the rodeo at Burlingame, and we’re really excited about that,” admitted Miller, who has an extensive set of cameras, lenses and flash attachments to adapt for nearly every level of environmental intensity and challenge.
Pat Rusher of the Burlingame Saddle Club emphasized: “Mr. Miller will be taking pictures throughout the event both nights. They will be available on his website for the cowboys and cowgirls to purchase if they wish. Mr. Miller will also take stills prior to the show, if anyone wants, and pictures are very reasonable.”
As with most things in four plus decades, Miller has seen considerable changes in photography.
“It was largely black and white when I started doing my own developing and printing. Then, major national slick publications required colored slides, and that was mostly what I shot for a number of years. Digital photography has been the most dramatic improvement, even though some people initially contended it would never work,” Miller commented.
Despite high demand for his works on many levels, Miller conceded, “Making a living as a professional photographer is much more difficult than it used to be. These quite inexpensive digital cameras will produce high quality images, so sometimes there isn’t the demand there used to be for photographs, even by major publications.”
Still, a “picture is always worth a thousand words,” and Miller concluded: “Oh yes, our main Kansas Heritage Photography website gives links to most of our work (Facebook sites and other related sites) and has an automatic slide show of many.”
Best of all, the Millers will be at the Burlingame Rodeo Friday and Saturday evenings, May 16 and 17.