Paul Boisvert ate eels, and he ended up with a 32-year career taking photos for The New York Times — and lots of other publications.
Boisvert’s father gave him a camera when he was 8 years old. He’s been taking pictures ever since.
Photography has been a constant in his life. Before cell phone photography, a camera was always a part of Boisvert’s wardrobe. For years, he never left home without a camera hanging around his neck.
And he was relentless about saving his photographs.
Half a million photographs and $1 million in film and developing costs later, he’s donated all those pictures to his alma mater — Champlain Valley Union High.
Raised at Shelburne Farms
Boisvert grew up on Shelburne Farms. His grandmother moved there at 5 years old in 1917, when her father took a job at the farm. When his mother met his father in 1939, he moved to the farm and became the head of maintenance. Eventually, his father studied accounting and became the farm’s accountant.
Boisvert started working on the farm when he was in the fifth grade.
“My father believed in work the work ethic. Nobody sits around on a free ride,” he said.
He started out making 25 cents an hour. By the time he was in the eighth grade he was making $1 an hour and had made enough money that he owed $96 in social security taxes.
High school photography
When Boisvert entered Champlain Valley Union, the school was just several years old and had an almost brand-new darkroom.
There he jumped into photography in a big way, taking pictures for the school newspaper and the yearbook. At CVU, Boisvert became involved with the DUO (Do Unto Others) program, which put students in real-world work experiences.
During his junior year, Boisvert put in 8-10 hours on Thursdays at the University of Vermont through the DUO program. He worked with university photographers, processing film, making prints and taking pictures of everything from group shots to sports to photos of school executives.
“I really learned a lot about photography in that year,” Boisvert said.
After his senior year at CVU, where his DUO assignment was taking pictures of other DUO participants at their job assignments, Boisvert went to the University of Vermont.
He only lasted for one year. Frustrated that he was required to take a beginning photography course after having spent his junior year of high school handling all sorts of photographic duties for the university, he dropped out after his freshman year and started his own freelance photography business in 1974.
At first, Boisvert was working for colleges, taking promotional pictures, photographing weddings and shooting portraits. Eventually, he started sending pictures to magazines.
In 1976, he was thrilled when he got his first photograph published in Vermont Life Magazine, which was known for its photography. So, then he started submitting photos to all kinds of magazines, in particular sailing and ski magazines, two sports he was very active in himself.
“I eventually became an extreme ski photographer,” Boisvert said.
In those days most of the key photographers went out west for their craft, so Boisvert sort of had a monopoly in the Northeast.
Growing within feet of Lake Champlain on Shelburne Farms, he was, and is, an avid sailor, racing in such far flung places as Chicago, San Francisco, Miami, Annapolis, Maine and Ontario. He began taking pictures while he was racing sailboats and became known for those photographs, which became sought after by publications which wanted photos taken from the perspective of someone engaged in the feverish activities of sailing.
One of his famous sailing photos came on a multi-day trip from Tampa to Miami in strong winds. The 90-foot boat was traveling at speeds up to 40 mph, when a big wind knocked it almost over. The boat didn’t capsize, but its sail was in the water as it skimmed along before coming back up.
“I grabbed the rail. With my other hand, I took a picture at that exact moment, the precise moment when the boat was in the water,” Boisvert said. “I would have fallen overboard if I didn’t grab the rail with one hand.”
He always was wearing at least one camera. In this situation, he was wearing two, under his rain gear, attached by bungee cords that would pull the camera back inside his raincoat next to his chest when he let them go.
That photo ran across two full pages side-by-side, to the edges.
The boat he was racing on was owned by the descendants of Huey P. Long, the infamous Louisiana politician who was the inspiration for “All the King’s Men.” The family loved the photo, so in addition to making a tidy sum from sailing publications, he made $25,000 selling pictures of their boat racing to the Longs.
“They wanted copies of everything,” Boisvert said.
The New York Times break through
In 1983, he went to The New York Times to pitch his photography skills.
“I’m up to my ears in photographers. I’m up to my ankles in photographers with ideas,” the photography editor told him. “If you ever get a good idea for The New York Times, call me.”
Undeterred, Boisvert read that, after about a century of being illegal, commercial eel fishing was going to be allowed on Lake Champlain. The state had passed a law allowing commercial eel fishing in northern parts of the lake.
Eel fishing was a tradition among the Abenaki, and it was seen as a good way to increase employment opportunities for the tribe that was suffering high unemployment.
The New York Times loved the story and told Boisvert to pick up a reporter at the Burlington airport. He and the reporter spent time with the late Chief Homer St. Francis, but this wasn’t the interview Boisvert, the reporter or The New York Times wanted. They all wanted a story and photographs from the actual experience of eel fishing with the Abenaki. However, St. Francis would not let them go out on the lake with the tribe.
Boisvert took the reporter back to the airport and saw him off. Then he called St. Francis.
“I said, ‘Homer, come on. This is my big chance for The New York Times,” Boisvert related. “He says, ‘OK, you come back up to Swanton, and I’ll cook you some eel. If you sit down and eat the eel, then you can go fishing with the boys.”
For some reason, non-native residents of the United States turn up their noses at eel, even if they’ve been enjoying it before they knew what kind of fish they were eating.
“I ate it,” Boisvert said. “It was delicious. Fantastic. It’s a delicacy in Europe.”
The Abenaki fish for eels at night, so that night he went out fishing. It was right after sunset. He took amazing photos.
In demand at other publications
And his photography career got a major boost.
Over the intervening years, Boisvert estimates he had about 15,000 assignments for The New York Times, eventually working for at least 15 photo editors for different sections of The New York Times. So, besides the main photo desk, his assignments included shooting travel, real estate, food and business photos.
“I was in the paper almost every day,” Boisvert said. One week he did over 12 assignments for The New York Times.
Often one New York Times assignment led to more than five assignments for other publications. His food photography got him lots of assignments in publications like Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Cooking Light. For example, after a story about the budding production of sheep milk cheese, he got more than 10 calls to take pictures for stories about cheesemaking in Vermont.
In 1987, because of his skills as a food photographer, The Times sent him on an assignment to the New England Culinary Institute. And on that assignment, he met his future wife. Ellen McShane was vice-president of the school. In 2000, she became director of student services at the University of Vermont.
Included in the 14 file cabinets of his numbered photos that now reside at Champlain Valley Union High are lots of photos of famous people, including such luminaries as authors John Irving and Saul Bellow, and actors Blythe Danner and her daughter Gwyneth Paltrow.
One of the most exciting assignments he ever had was photographing the Dalai Lama at Middlebury College in total silence.
“He was handing out bread,” Boisvert said. “Thousands of people were lined up to get bread. Not one peep was uttered by anybody.”
No more winter sports
Skiing, one of his greatest passions, Boisvert can’t enjoy any more. He is a vibrant, energetic man on the day we talked at a coffee shop in Shelburne, but this clearly hurts, maybe not physically, but it’s nonetheless painful.
One season, he and his friends skied every trail at all 18 Vermont ski areas. “When we would get to a ski area, we would get a trail map and we’d ski left to right, every single trail.”
Over the years, Boisvert did most of his skiing in Stowe and estimates he has skied Mount Mansfield over 1,000 times.
But no more.
Six years ago, he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. The doctors told him he would probably be dead in five years.
“So, I was supposed to die last year, and last year I got COVID,” Boisvert said.
He was in the hospital for three months. The doctors told his wife to make funeral arrangements.
Boisvert is sure he would have died if he hadn’t had every COVID booster he could get before getting sick.
He places his hand on his throat and chokes himself. His voice comes out in a strained and painful whisper: “If I go out in the cold, this is what I sound like because I can’t breathe.”
For most of his life he has done almost every winter sport — downhill skiing, cross country skiing, extreme skiing, snowshoeing, skating, ice climbing — always with a camera. His website usstockphoto.com is filled with a selection of 35,000 photos from the 500,000 photos in his archives. So many of those photos were taken in the snow.
Now, he can’t walk from his home to his mailbox in cold weather. But he’s filled with energy on this warm fall day.
He’d sold his Shelburne home of 26 years the day before. He would go camping at Button Bay for the weekend with a group of guys he’s known for most of his life. Come the new week, he was headed for Florida before the Vermont cold set in.
But before he left, he’d made sure that CVU had the pride of the lions’ share of his photos, except the ones he still needed to sort through and organize.
“I didn’t want to die and see all my pictures end up in the trash,” he said, so he’s made sure the school has his photos and owns them lock, stock and digital barrel. His photos are no longer his property.
He hopes the school he loves makes lots of money off his photos. “I hope that they monetize this to death.”
Superintendent Rene Sanchez said, “We have to figure out the best way to do it while at the same time honoring his legacy.”
Principal Adam Bunting agreed and said accepting this graduate’s gift is a bit intimidating.
“In the first phone call I had with him, I was getting a little bit teary, just thinking about some of the challenges that he’s facing, but also what he’s leaving behind,” Bunting said.
Bunting plans to get a team of teachers together to discuss different ways the school might utilize the collection. Preliminary ideas include, not only getting business classes working on ways to make money that could fund other school projects, but also ways for students to be inspired by Boisvert’s work.
Boisvert wears a cap that says “Vacay Mode,” an appropriate chapeau for someone who’s in perpetual-vacation mode now.
His wife had already driven to Florida the week before. Their house was sold. He’d found a new home for a lifetime worth of photos. After a weekend of camping, he was headed down to join her.