A lens on Amish life: Acclaimed local photographer Bill Coleman dies at 88

crosenbl@centredaily.comJanuary 31, 2014 

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    To see more of Bill Coleman’s work, visit amishphoto.com.

One day many years ago, Bill Coleman found himself driving behind an Amish buggy.

He noticed a wheel was coming off and, while passing, shouted to the driver.

The old man pulled to the side of the road. Coleman followed suit. Together, they repaired the wheel.

Coleman received a thank you — but not what he expected.

He heard the Amish man express his gratitude for being able to farm his land amid the English community. Coleman, in his first conversation with an Amish person, was taken aback.

“I think that was sort of an opening of this respect that he felt, coming from an older Amish person, older than him, thanking him,” said Coleman’s son, Noah Coleman.

Bill Coleman, who died Tuesday at 88 of complications from a heart attack, went on to befriend Amish families who invited him into their lives, granting the local photographer rare access to scenes outsiders seldom glimpse.

He became known internationally for his Amish images: buggies on tree-shaded lanes, children playing in schoolyards, young men walking in a cluster down a road.

Throughout his long and successful career, starting with his first State College studio in 1951, he strove to capture the essence of people — from the student and local resident portraits of his early years to the Amish and European scenes that defined his later work.

“He was an observer,” said Noah Coleman, who moved back to State College five years ago to manage his father’s archives.

“He observed body language. He observed color and how people used their hands, whether they were fishermen or they just used their hands to communicate, as the Italians do. He just derived pleasure from that, being an observer.”

In a 2007 Good Life magazine profile for the CDT, Coleman said he saw his Amish photos as preserving a culture relatively unchanged for a century.

“Ten years ago, it dawned on me that my photos have to have more function than décor on a wall,” he said. “They should serve as an object lesson to we, the English, of the beauty we are oblivious of.”

A private memorial service for Coleman will be held Friday. Plans are being made for a public memorial later this year.

Coleman will be buried in the Spring Creek Presbyterian Cemetery in College Township, Noah Coleman said.

A craftsman, not an artist

Photographer Jana Scott, who works out of a Lemont studio, knew Coleman’s Amish catalog in great detail. She worked as his gallery manager for more than two years until 2009.

“An artist, aware of his own humanity yet continuing to pursue the Amish people for generations, Bill Coleman can be remembered as a bold risk-taker,” Scott said in an email.

“BC would never approve the title ‘artist.’ He would say, “I am just a photographer.’ Yet, he opened our hearts to a culture that was closed. He allowed us all to (venture) into places that are forbidden.

“His work remains a textbook of photojournalistic artistry.”

Noah Coleman said his father considered himself a “craftsman, that he was just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.” In the Good Life profile, the photographer struck a typically modest note.

“I never did and still don’t think I have a special gift,” he said. “The fact that someone buys my work is like having someone applaud my breathing.”

Born in 1925 in Hartford, Conn., Coleman grew up in the state and in Brooklyn, N.Y. As a student of a special agrarian school, akin to a magnet school of today, he spent parts of his summers on Pennsylvania and New York farms, developing a lifelong affinity for countrysides.

Noah Coleman thinks his father’s tastes helped bring him to Centre County after serving in World War II as a combat infantryman in Europe.

“It felt immediately comfortable, and probably the reason why he never went back to New York,” Noah Coleman said. “He was comfortable in bucolic, rural settings.”

During the war, Coleman was taken prisoner. He escaped from the Stalag 7-A camp, only to be captured again soon after.

Noah Coleman said his father’s wartime memories helped inspire thousands of images.

“I think photography was his language of understanding the world and trying to make sense of it,” Noah Coleman said.

“And also, photography was a way to capture the beauty he saw in humanity. ... I think he was tormented by what happened to him in the war and couldn’t make sense of what he saw. So I think actively pursuing beauty was therapeutic.”

Connected to kids

Coleman, who graduated from Penn State in 1949, put his English degree to good use after a lit cigarette in a darkroom — a major no-no — hastened his departure from a Rochester Institute of Technology photography master’s degree program.

Back in State College, he composed his first studio’s local newspaper advertisements.

“He was kind of witty and funny, and always tried to have things with a different angle,” Noah Coleman said

Before long, Bill Coleman was attracting plenty of business, snapping portraits of Penn State students in his College Avenue studios.

As the years went by, Coleman branched out to local school pictures. Over time, he became adept at portraiture, depicting not only business and community leaders but also everyday people in his life: the milk delivery man, the mail carrier.

Mike Desmond, the owner of Hotel State College, was one of Coleman’s subjects — at the tender age of 2.

Desmond, whose father and Coleman once lived in the same boarding house, became good friends with the photographer.

“I would say he was a quality-oriented person, and if you were fortunate enough to be in front of his lens, he could do marvelous things for you,” Desmond said, noting that Coleman especially provoked great expressions from children.

Noah Coleman said his father — an affectionate, devoted parent to his son and daughter — loved children because he “was like a big child himself.”

“He would play and engage them,” Coleman said. “He just really enjoyed their points of view.”

When his rent for his last studio skyrocketed in 1980, Coleman switched his business to his State College home and focused more on getting to know Amish families in Mifflin County’s Big Valley.

He often clowned around with the children, playing his harmonica. Some of them he knew for so long, he met their grandchildren.

To every encounter, Coleman brought the same dedication he displayed in the European countries that he admired.

“He would spend days or weeks in a Portuguese fishing village or a piazza in a small village in Italy,” Noah Coleman said. “He would just station himself there for some time and photograph people.”

But for all his rapport and skill, Bill Coleman never forgot the power he wielded — perhaps the legacy of going to war.

“To really be a photographer in the true sense, you’ve got to be a predator,” he said in 2007. “A camera is a weapon. It steals images and souls, and you sometimes have to put your sensitivities away for a while.”

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter@CRosenblumNews.

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