Ken Sklute's Amish Experience
by Lou Jacobs Jr.
December 10, 2012 —
During his illustrious 37-year photographic career, Ken Sklute—who began shooting when he was just 14 at the New York National Speedway on Long Island using his mother’s 126 Instamatic—has received many awards and achievements, including being named one of Canon’s Explorers of Light, winning 14 Kodak Gallery awards and 15 Fuji Masterpiece Awards, and collecting 32 Photographer of the Year awards along the way between New York, Arizona and California. These days, he spends most of his time not only photographing but also teaching and lecturing, both nationally and internationally.
While still in his teens, Sklute assisted a wedding photographer for three months before photographing his first wedding on his own. He eventually took a job with another studio—a large wedding factory that handled upwards of 1,500 weddings a year—where he was guaranteed 100 weddings a year. Much to Sklute’s dismay, the career move meant he had to give up his first passion, drag racing, because those events, like weddings, took place mostly on weekends.
As a result of a bad motorcycle accident in 2000, Sklute decided to scale back on weddings and return to his roots of photographing 300-mph racecars. He landed a job with the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), the sanctioning body of drag racing, providing daily race images for the sport’s premiere website, NHRA.com, while simultaneously focusing his attention on teaching workshops and lecturing. Each September, he would return to a racetrack in Reading, Pennsylvania, where he also visited the nearby Amish villages in Lancaster, a culture and community for which he’s held a lifelong curiosity and admiration. After that, Sklute began visiting the Amish every year to capture imagery that he could use in print competitions.
Because personal projects are a vital part of what helps keep photographers’ creative passions alive, we sat down recently with Sklute to talk more in depth about his photographic history with the Amish.
Rangefinder: What was the catalyst to photographing this community and culture of people?
RF: What kinds of daily rituals did you encounter during your visits?
Virtually all of my Amish imagery until then was done from a distance, from the confines of my rental car, often while I was driving. Now I suddenly had the weekend to photograph Mark and Mae’s family and another family as well. It meant I could document Amish life more closely and thoroughly. I came to their breakfast table with my camera every morning and also helped bale hay. All they asked was that I not send pictures to their community newspaper.
RF: Was it difficult to get the community to let you photograph them?
RF: What other photo opportunities did you have there?
KS: On a recent visit, with freedom to document what I wished, I went with the family to an Amish auction where there were 500 members of the community. I was interested in finding out what their values were about home furnishings and other items. When a child fell and cut his head deeply I was asked to drive him and a parent to the hospital. Amish transportation is a horse and buggy so my first-aid trip opened relations, and new doors, with access to more Amish families to photograph.
RF: What photographic limits did you face?
I feel that being able to capture and preserve their more simple lives is a welcome challenge. I cannot move about freely in some situations, but I still capture fleeting moments on streets from my car. Many activities I shoot have spawned numerous competition prints.
RF: Do you usually shoot in available light?
KS: I have only used existing light. In some cases as we bailed hay, it was direct sunlight. I use available light in the barn, and inside the home I am working with either window light or the gas lamps once the sun goes down. Most of my subjects never had [their picture] taken before; they stand quietly and watch me with thoughtful expressions.
RF: What has been your most challenging photo situation during these shoots?
RF: What camera(s) do you use while on these shoots?
RF: How do you publicize this work, other than through the print competitions you enter every year?
RF: What’s your advice for professionals who want to undertake personal projects?
KS: Not everything that we do should be for clients. We need personal projects to refresh our enthusiasm for photography. It is satisfying to create images inspired by your own ideas, and growing photographically is of prime importance to help stay sharp. Find creative themes that turn you on. They may not be convenient, but they can be challenging and satisfying.
This project has been in progress for over 25 years. I see no signs of it being complete any time soon. It is one that takes on a new shape every year. I enjoy remarkable experiences like this coming into my life and enriching it. These are simple, warm, unique people that can only remind me of the wonderful sense of family and community that we do not seem to see in the big city!
Lou Jacobs Jr., is the author of 37 how-to photo books, including Off-Camera Flash Photography (Amherst Media). He is an industrial designer who became a photographer who became a writer. The former ASMP national president has taught photography at UCLA and Brooks, and is now writing a young adult book, Teaching Mr. Lincoln to Drive.
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