If you’ve ever searched for photos of the Amish, chances are you’ve come across the work of Bill Coleman.
Bill has spent decades capturing images of Amish in a remote Pennsylvania community. Many of the photos–of buggies, weddings, and the changing seasons–are simply stunning, while others–such as his portraits of children–reveal a closeness Bill has achieved with his many subjects over the years.
I had always wondered how Bill was able to take such photos among a people that are as supposedly photo-shy as the Amish. Today we’ve gotten permission to share an adapted and enhanced interview (which Bill did for Nikon in 2009) in which he reveals that back-story.
Bill’s son Noah is Managing Director of Bill Coleman Fine Art Photography, helping to carry on what his father started. Noah adds that Bill’s subjects “love, love, love seeing the pictures, as you might have also noticed in your travels.”
I want to welcome Amishphoto.com as Amish America’s newest advertiser, and to just mention that these photos,which come in a variety of formats and sizes, make great holiday gifts. Even if you aren’t in the market, I recommend visiting amishphoto.com to admire Bill’s impressive body of work.
About Bill and his background as a photographer
Recognized as the foremost photographer of the Amish, Bill Coleman has been photographing Old Order Amish families in a secluded valley in Pennsylvania for nearly 40 years. His work has been published in three books and numerous publications over the years as well as being exhibited nationally and internationally over the past 30 years.
His early career as a portrait photographer
When first “discovering” the remote Amish valley and the families living there, Bill was an established and successful portrait photographer. “I had a pretty profitable business doing glamour portraits of Penn State sorority girls. I was booked three months in advance, and did about four sittings a day.” But part of him was looking for a change.
“I was slowly getting burned out making people look beautiful,” he has said, “but I didn’t go looking for the Amish as a subject. I didn’t know anything at all about them. I came across the valley by sheer accident.” Soon he realized that what he was seeing and photographing in the Amish community was much more fascinating than the portraiture he was doing.
A random drive through a valley turns into an ongoing 40 year passion
When Bill first drove into the valley, he thought it might take a few weeks to photograph the Amish families living there. Two or three years came and went and he began to feel a need to continue to document the community, to preserve it in his pictures. “I think it is one of the last communities of Amish in this country that tourists have had very little effect on,” Bill has said, “so there is a basic integrity here.
He has shared his feelings with members of the community. “A few do understand. Over the years I’ve seen people become much more lenient towards me, even the ones who were at first adamantly against me. I think they’re beginning to understand what my mind set is all about.” There is so much that goes back a hundred years that has not been diluted. I felt that if I didn’t capture this on film, no one else would. I know it was a presumptuous thing, but that’s how I felt.”
How do you get these pictures..are they posed?
There are about 120 families in the area, but only twelve or so give Bill permission to photograph. “They know me intimately, and they know I come there often and roam around, just to get casual shots. I never decide in advance what I’m going to photograph—often the weather and the look of the sky is going to determine what I’m going to photograph that day on a particular farm.”
He says his pictures are the result of “luck and location,” that all he need do is stand in the right place at the right time. “I’ve always felt that there are two kinds of photographers—those who recognize that which was already established beauty, and those who can create beauty.” And because he doesn’t pose anyone, he doesn’t consider himself the creator of a beautiful image.
His photography of the Amish, he says, is simply a matter of hanging around and being observant and receptive. “I’m open to absorb whatever I might see,” he says. The daily life around him provides all the opportunity he needs. He also has the added benefit of familiarity. The people are so used to seeing him that they practically don’t see him. “And if they see me,” he says, “it’s nothing special to them. They’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s just Bill, hanging around, taking pictures.'”
What do you look for when you’re shooting and do you photograph other subject matter?
He has a few things he likes to do. “I found that it’s much more meaningful and universal when you see a child from the back. When you see him from the front, you’re looking at someone’s child; from the back you’re looking at everyone’s child.” Collective gatherings are also a favorite subject matter that Bill looks for whether it be barn raisings, auctions or weddings; “these events allow me to capture the essence of Amish culture — cooperation, humility and mutual respect for one another”.
The Amish aren’t Bill’s only subjects. He also photographs in Maine, and used to travel at least once a year to Europe. He photographs villages in Maine and Italy for the same reason he photographs the Amish. “I’ve watched values and society slide into a predictable package, and my photography of the Amish was an escape, a return to a basic reality. The Italian small town is the same…there is something exquisite about the lifestyle and the people”.
“I go into villages—usually farming or fishing villages, but really any village off the beaten track—and what I’m looking for there is the same thing I’m looking for among the Amish—a lifestyle more befitting the way we were born and built to be.”
Noah Coleman, Bill’s son, manages the day to day operations of Bill’s fine art photography business. “We have a small gallery here in State College, PA and coordinate our e-commerce efforts there. We recently updated our website (www.amishphoto.com) with some of Bill’s newest and classic images.”
“The challenging part is deciding what should be featured as there are so many favorites”. In addition, they’re coordinating national and international exhibitions of the photography over the next several years. One upcoming exhibit will be in Passau, Germany, a historically important city where the Anabaptists were imprisoned in the 16th century.” Noah said it would be kind of full circle for Bill as he too was a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany.
“We started archiving Bill’s work two years ago. It’s no small task as we’re talking about thousands of images. What’s critical is identifying, preserving and digitizing the negatives. I look at this forty year exploration as a unique documentary of perhaps the last Old Order white-topper Amish community in the world.”
“Whatever happens, we want to ensure that the work remains for future generations to see,” said Noah. Though in his late eighties, Bill remains active — still regularly shooting in his favorite Amish valley. “His casualty rate is higher these days due to his limited ability to get around, but his composition and sense of light still inspire,” Noah said.
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