Ken Sklute's Amish Experience

by Lou Jacobs Jr.

Ken Sklute

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?
Ken Sklute: It offered me the opportunity to photograph unique subjects and lifestyles. It’s like going back 100-plus years in time. My pictures help explain the Amish culture and their involvement with the land. I began visiting the Amish in Lancaster a couple of times a year at first. It was only a three-hour drive from my home on Long Island, and those visits helped me build a large body of work. Each visit also pushed me further, photographically. After relocating to Arizona, I looked into exploring other Amish communities around the country. A few years ago, after speaking in Detroit, I chose to head to a nearby Amish community in Northern Indiana where I came to meet a young Amish man who was passing by on his bicycle. He invited me to stop by his home to meet his dad. I enjoyed a four-hour visit with them, each of us curious about the others’ culture. We have since become close friends and I visit them often.

RF: What kinds of daily rituals did you encounter during your visits?
KS: My friend invited me on my next visit to join the family for supper. When I did, I had a warm reception and met the other family members that were away when I first visited. Dad (Mark) hand-churned fresh ice cream for the occasion and Mom (Mae) rolled soft pretzels while I took pictures. Our friendship grew and I was invited to stay with the family on my next visit.

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?
KS: The Amish are very simple, private people. I have gained the respect of the Indiana Amish, as I now attend community auctions, church and even visited an Amish school for a day. This allows me to develop more relationships and be let into more homes. This community is a bit more relaxed than the Lancaster Amish and they seem open to allowing me to photograph their daily chores.

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?
KS: At the Indiana Amish community I don’t ever try to photograph the few elders or certain families. I add to my archive with families riding in buggies, doing shopping and chores, and socializing. One kid calls me every Thursday evening to chat, which helps keep my connections.

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?
KS: It’s one where I had just a few seconds to shoot, which resulted in one of my favorite  pictures. I was outside of the car, shooting video. I had a Zacuto Z-finder on my Canon Mark IV while following a horse-drawn buggy. Suddenly, an elderly couple was crossing the street, and I needed to switch from video to still mode, remove the Zacuto finder and rotate the camera from horizontal to vertical, making the image just a split second before the image disappeared. The image was of an Amish couple, framed by a tree and a buggy in the background. It was serendipitous, as the “earth, moon and stars aligned” as I captured one of my favorite images to date. I would like to think that I got the shot perhaps with my experience of grabbing fleeting glances and moments from my years of photographing at weddings.

RF: What camera(s) do you use while on these shoots?
KS: I often keep three cameras ready in my Amish office—which is the front seat of my rental car. One is an infrared converted Canon 5D Mark II fitted with a 24-105 lens. Another body is my workhorse 1D Mark IV. I also like the remarkably versatile Canon 28-300 lens. The third body is another Canon 5D Mark II, and a Canon 16-35 mm 2.8 is always available.

RF: How do you publicize this work, other than through the print competitions you enter every year?
KS: I had my first gallery exhibit in Lishui, China, last November as part of the exhibit, “Family Life in America.” With my Amish lifestyle imagery, I am hoping for more exhibits, and eventually a book.

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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