Photographing Amish Communities: Robert Weingarten Captures Timeless Ways Of Life In “Another America”


All Photos © Robert Weingarten

“What happens to a dream deferred?” asks Langston Hughes in his famous poem. Photographer Robert Weingarten found a way to fulfill his dream, even though it happened much later in life. In high school, a guidance counselor advised he would have to choose between a career in photography and working in the finance world if he wanted to make some decent money. “I grew up in a tenement in Brooklyn, New York, and hated being poor,” Weingarten recalls. “But I always had a passion for photography and loved taking and developing pictures.”

After majoring in finance and economics in college, Weingarten had a very successful career in investing and publishing. In his early 50s, he decided to take a class on Winston Churchill in England, and casually asked a fellow student why she was there. “She said she was tired of adding things to her bucket list and it was high time to start taking things off. I realized then and there I wanted to get back to my photography on a more serious level.”

Timeless Communities
Starting with landscape photography in Tuscany, Provence, and the English countryside, Weingarten realized he wanted to find places that were “touched by the hand of man but without telephone poles, billboards, or electric wires. I looked for locations where you couldn’t tell what century you were in.”

He recalled driving through Amish communities in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, during his business days, and thought this might be the perfect location to photograph a timeless way of life. His first shot, in color, was of a carriage in the early evening moving along a line of trees. Finally, he understood the term “gesture in a landscape,” with the carriage being the gesture.

The next morning it was raining, but since it was a Sunday Weingarten decided to see how the Amish worship and followed a group of carriages to someone’s farm. With all the carriages parked outside a barn in the rain, it reminded him of a Stieglitz photo. “I realized then it’s not about the landscape but how people live in the landscape.”

It also occurred to him that he should be shooting in black and white. “Color would destroy everything I was feeling at that moment. Black and white better reflects life in a previous century, as though my photos had been taken there 100 years ago.” Deciding to do an entire series on the Amish, he went on to visit communities in Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Tennessee.

Tips From The Masters
Weingarten followed the technique of Henri Cartier-Bresson who advocated waiting for the “decisive moment” by framing a shot and then waiting sometimes for hours “for life to happen.” He also refers to Ansel Adams’s “previsualization,” where one sees how the photo should look and only shoots when the light is how they visualized it.

For one photo, Weingarten set up his camera near a schoolhouse, noticing that the light coming in from the opposite window in a classroom would eventually be coming toward him. If a person were inside they would take the form of a silhouette. Sure enough, a teacher came into view holding a book, nicely framed by the window.

Shooting Techniques
The Amish believe if one poses for photographs or displays them in their home it is a sign of vanity. So Weingarten almost always shot from a distance using a long 300mm lens. These rules did not apply to children, however.

Called “Anabaptists,” at age 18 every child has to live in the non-Amish world for a year before they are officially baptized, and about 96 percent do come back since they want to marry in and be part of the Amish community. Fortunately, children can be photographed any time before their baptism.

“There are documentary photographers who live and work within a community for a period of time to gain trust, but I didn’t want that,” Weingarten recalls. “I wanted to see the Amish as they are when they weren’t aware of my presence.”

Going Digital
While shooting his Amish series, dramatic improvements were being made in digital cameras. Weingarten had always used a Nikon F5, but had started using an 11.1-megapixel Canon EOS-1Ds in place of Polaroid snapshots when he was trying to set up a photo. He could then use a program on his computer to analyze the angle of the sun to figure out what time of day to take a shot. Using digital toward the end of the “Another America” series in Tennessee, he realized there really was no difference in the quality of the photos. “Digital gives you an infinite world of creative possibilities,” Weingarten believes.

In 1997, Weingarten heard about all that could be done with Iris inkjet digital printing through Graham Nash and Mac Holbert, who had started Nash Editions. “I like to think my landscape photography is ‘painterly.’ With color film, when you go to print it you increase the contrast normally, making it look more photorealistic rather than more painterly. With digital you could use different substrates and I thought I could get the look I wanted.” Soon Nash Editions was printing all his work, but Holbert suggested he learn the process himself.

“At first I had zero interest in learning how to print, as I had always been a darkroom person,” Weingarten recalls. “But I met with Mac every week for years and eventually learned all that was possible with digital printing.

“I want the viewer of my photographs to have a wonderful, artistic experience. I would hope they respond to it on a visual basis first before the intellectual. It’s also my sincere wish that everyone has an opportunity to pursue his or her passion to find out if it really works for them or not.”

Robert Weingarten is an internationally acclaimed fine art photographer whose photos have appeared in over 90 exhibitions in museums and galleries throughout the world. Additional photos can be viewed on his website,