Pa. photographer provided lens on Amish life

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) - 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.

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