Scenes You Might Have Missed

By Brittany Negaard
Staff Writer

Picture a giant power plant in the Wyoming countryside, billowing massive clouds of smoke overhead. The words “Scenic Overlook” aren’t the first that come to mind. But an old sign with those words and an arrow pointing directly at the power plant, does exist. Local photographer J. Earl Miller found this photo opportunity while working on his latest collection. The irony of this scene is what inspired the project’s name, A Scenic Overlook.

“That’s what a lot of my photos do. It’s something really weird and crazy that’s not supposed to be there, but it is,” says Miller.

Miller found the power plant during his five-day trip to Las Vegas to attend a friend’s wedding. Instead of flying, the photographer opted to take the scenic route, which would afford him the opportunity to visit friends and take photos along the way. He hoped this would be a “journey most people wouldn’t take.”

He took a roundabout trip through the back roads of South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada. His trip led him through Aberdeen and Rapid City, S.D., Laramie, Wyo., Boulder, Colo., to Moab and Salt Lake City, Utah, and up through Ely, Nev. Miller put between four and five thousand miles on his car, the result of which is this collection of 10 images. The prints are larger in size than Miller’s typical prints, and are meant to capture the vastness and variation of the scenes from his trip.

His adventure wasn’t without obstacles; Miller left in early March and storms came practically every night. At one point he found himself trapped behind an accident in a canyon in Colorado. With no phone reception and no way of exiting the canyon, Miller waited it out as the nearby toxic waste spill, caused by the accident, was cleaned up.

He recalls another evening when he led ten cars through the mountains during a snowstorm in Nevada. Traveling at 25 miles per hour with little visibility, Miller drove to the nearest town, which was 45 miles out of the way. He stopped for a short break, and one of the drivers following him got out of his car to say he was doing a good job. Miller said they could pass him if they wished, but the driver responded, “No we’re following you. You’re from North Dakota.”

Hours spent broken down in “the middle of nowhere,” i.e. rural North Dakota, getting stuck on roads that appeared to be dry and safe for travel, contribute to his talent for driving in poor conditions.

Miller doesn’t mind spending hours by himself in his car, driving through the countryside and scoping out unique and often unnoticed opportunities for photographs. As long as he’s got National Public Radio, he doesn’t get bored.

Dakota Moniker, his previous and ongoing project, has led him through most of eastern and southwestern North Dakota over the last three years. The Moniker project now has two installments, meant to capture the weird and intriguing aspects of the rural countryside of North Dakota that many drive by without noticing.

Much like his trip for Scenic Overlook, his Moniker routes are not predetermined. He’s spent hours and hours venturing through random dirt roads, turning directions on a whim.

As unique or even as weird as some of the images Miller captures may seem, none of them are photo-shopped. “I try to keep everything as close to form as using film,” Miller says.

His career hasn’t been without a few major setbacks. He lost 95 percent of his work in the flood of ’97; mildew and water destroyed many of his negatives and prints. Earlier this year, all of his camera equipment was stolen from his car. Friends and area business came together to help Miller after the robbery. Friends donated the space, food, and beverages for a benefit show held in December. The funds raised afforded Miller enough for a new camera body and lens.

“Hundreds of people of showed up. I sold a lot of pieces, and met a lot of new people who were interested in what I was doing … I’m still without a lot of equipment from the robbery, but slowly but surely, with the shows I’m doing, I’ll be able to start recouping some of the costs of what was taken,” says Miller.

Funding may still be the biggest obstacle for Miller’s projects. Traveling and scouring the countryside is not cheap at today’s gas prices. Framing expenses can be just as expensive. He hopes the Moniker project will eventually raise enough to turn the collection into a book.

Miller plans to continue showing and working on the project, which won him a featured artist spot in the “Art on the Plains” show at the Plains Art Museum. It was also displayed during the Spring Art Gala.

He hopes to wrap up his Moniker project by the fall of 2013. The summer months will give him the opportunity to work on the third installment of the project, as winter is not the ideal time for anyone to be traveling the backroads of North Dakota.

The reception for his latest collection, A Scenic Overlook, will be held at DK Custom Framing at Gallery 14 on Thurs., June 7 at 6 p.m. Food and drinks will be available, and the show is free to attend. The collection will be on display at the gallery until the end of the month.

Miller was born in Thief River Falls, Minn. and has lived in Fargo since he was 13. He studied photography at Central Lakes College and Minnesota State University Moorhead. For more information about the artist visit

Questions & Comments:

WHAT: J. Earl Miller’s A Scenic Overlook
WHERE: DK Framing at Gallery 14, 14 Roberts Street North, Fargo
WHEN: Reception: Thurs, June 7, 6 p.m.; On display all of June