Home in the Highlands

by Noah Coleman

Former Coleman home and studio -- 301 South Garner Street
Former Coleman home and studio — 301 South Garner Street

The odd thing about returning to the place where one was born is the intersection of your past and current lives. Returning to State College has created new patterns upon previous layers upon previous memories. When Highlands resident Dr. Eric White asked me to contribute a piece about my father (photographer Bill Coleman) and growing up in the Highlands, I was overwhelmed with a recent move to Holmes-Foster resulting from our bittersweet departure from my childhood home on Foster and Garner. Pondering down memory lane brings up a lot. The challenge was what the heck do I share that’s relevant or of interest to the residents of the Highlands? I settled on my father’s story and his choice to reside in the Highlands for more than 60 years.

As a kid, I recall State College summers being so much more social, but those were different times. Most mornings, my father and I would depart our home at 301 South Garner, make a beeline to his red-carpeted, dramatically lit, mid-century subterranean studio at Heister Street, no more than a five-minute walk. The studio was his psychological ground zero, and it was our first stop of the morning to view his upcoming ‘sittings’ and pick up his untouched, not-to-ever-be-missed New York Times. If time permitted, we’d scurry back upstairs to grab a bite at The Deli or The Corner Room. To a seven-year-old, The Deli and its magical sense of abundance—the obscene-sized cakes, repurposed stained glass, church pews, and vintage advertising–served my imagination endlessly. Just as impactful, The Corner Room’s tall seat-backs, views of College and Allen Streets, and a revolving door of familiar faces was an easy spot for holding court. It would have been impossible to not engage with at least half a dozen people before the second cup of coffee.

So, how does one describe a parent who seems slightly larger than life when all of our parents seemed that way? I think it helps to first highlight that we were two generations apart, my father and I. He was more than twenty years older than my mother, much to the chagrin of my grandparents, who were really his contemporaries. This generational difference also meant that my father had served in World War II. He fought in our local 28th Infantry Division during the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, the longest battle on German ground during World War II, and one of the war’s bloodiest. Suffering severe frostbite, Bill was captured several times and imprisoned by the Nazis. After liberation, he received a Purple Heart for successive attempts of escape—what he would later call utter stupidity. To be sure, these were life events my father and I did not share. I cannot fathom his war experiences, though sadly all of us who were close to him knew that these undiagnosed horrors continued to haunt him until the very end.

Born and raised in Connecticut and New York, my father experienced a busy but unremarkable depression-era childhood, traveling long hours to attend a specialized agrarian high school in Queens; manning his uncle’s evening newspaper stand in Manhattan; and if lucky enough, summering with relatives in Connecticut. His dislike of large cities was palpable. Whenever we’d venture into Manhattan or any metropolis of note, I’d witness a larger-than-life man transform into a panic-stricken, glassy-eyed dolt. In high school, Bill’s academic interests gravitated towards agriculture or anything to get him out of the city, which probably brought him to Penn State. After returning from the war in 1945, Bill graduated with a degree in English from Penn State. He went on to pursue a graduate degree in photography at RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) but was dismissed for lighting up a cigarette in a darkroom.

The very next year (1950) with generous family support, Bill opened the Lion Photographic Studio on College Avenue, primarily photographing Greek-life glamor portraits at Penn State. Unlike the principals at other studios, Bill was a close contemporary of his subjects and was clever enough to tap into the nascent intersection of popularity, narcissism, and photography. He advertised a weekly column in the Daily Collegian titled ‘Ok Joe’, where a lucky ‘co-ed’ portrait was chosen as the ad of the week.

Bill sitting in his studio under his portraits -- circa 1955
Bill sitting in his studio under his portraits — circa 1955

Bill achieved commercial success in little time by expanding his line of portraiture to include families, children, and professionals while embracing new photographic technologies afforded by the advent of color film. Bill thrived on change and a successful portrait studio with four sittings a day booked a solid three months out didn’t cut it.

When famed war photojournalist Robert Capa was killed in the French war in Indochina, my dad told me he sent an impassioned letter to Capa’s photo agency in Paris offering to take Capa’s place at his own expense. He recalled the photo agency’s brief but meaningful response: “Roger Capa would come up with a masterpiece from something as ordinary as a Kansas cornfield. See what you can do in your own backyard.”

State College summers and holiday breaks served as creative sabbaticals for Bill. Postwar Europe, more accessible than ever, would serve as his muse throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Bill would pick a location and go from there with no set agenda. No matter how disparate his subjects—whether a day in the life of a Portuguese fisherman, a Welsh slate miner on his last legs, or capturing the adrenaline-pumped runners running with the bulls in Pamplona—these were experiences that served his creative endeavors.

Bill continued his portrait practice for close to thirty years, eventually becoming the go-to portrait photographer in the region. He secured contracts to photograph SCASD and BEASD high school seniors and, if anyone can remember, the Rainbow Girls. He often photographed Penn State sports events, the Blue Band, and countless campus shots.

In an interview about my father’s Amish work by Nikon’s series Legend Behind the Lens, Bill said he was “slowly getting burned out making people look beautiful” and that he didn’t go looking for the Amish as a subject. “I didn’t know anything at all about them. I came across the valley by sheer accident.” Soon he realized that what he was seeing and photographing in the Amish community was much more fascinating than the portraiture he was doing.

Bill shooting an Amish scene -- circa 2008, age 83
Bill shooting an Amish scene — circa 2008, age 83

There were about 90 families in the area, but only ten or so gave Bill permission to photograph. “They know me intimately, and they know I come there often and roam around, just to get casual shots. I never decide in advance what I’m going to photograph—often the weather and the look of the sky is going to determine what I’m going to photograph that day on a particular farm.”

After photographing the families for two or three years, he said he began to feel a need to continue to document the community, to preserve it in his pictures. “I think it is one of the last communities of Amish in this country that tourists have had very little effect on,” Bill has said, “so there is a basic integrity here. There is so much that goes back a hundred years that has not been diluted. I felt that if I didn’t capture this on film, no one else would. I know it was a presumptuous thing, but that’s how I felt.”

By the early 1980s, Bill had relocated his portrait studio from Heister Street to his Dutch Colonial home in the Highlands and practiced his business there until retiring in 2010. In the early years, Borough zoning restricted the number of employees one could have in a home. Bill rarely asked permission and did what he could get away with. There were all sorts of hoops and hurdles to work around to make 301 South Garner a fully functioning business while maintaining the home’s original exterior character. The interior went through a number of changes with the major repurposing of the space. The first floor was almost entirely dedicated to print production, matting, signing, and fulfillment, with a small sitting gallery and kitchen. The basement was converted into a full darkroom, color processor, and expansive print and negative storage. The upstairs was maintained as a private living space, but there were few creature comforts.

By the mid-1980s, Bill was exhibiting his Amish collection nationally, letting go of portraiture entirely. There were rarely fewer than half a dozen employees at the house. I remember it being a beehive of activity during my summer-long visits from Los Angeles. His work at this point experienced a fair bit of commercial success and notoriety. Awards, newsprint publication features, an international exhibit, and his first book Amish Odyssey punctuated it all. His work evidently hit a nerve, evoking a romanticized, bucolic impression of early America in stark contrast to the 1980s.

My dad, much to his own surprise, could return to his ‘backyard’ season after season and find something different or new. He went on to produce two more books and a three-thousand image limited-edition print collection that will take another ten years to adequately archive. His work has been exhibited in the UK, Germany, Japan, Washington DC, San Francisco, and Atlanta and is in numerous private and public collections.

In spite of his mercurial, sometimes magnanimous, sometimes fragile and other times dismissive manner, Bill remained active collaborating with and mentoring other photographers and exploring new subject matter and styles. He counted himself fortunate enough to know, mentor, and or collaborate with architectural photographer Bill Timmerman, celebrity photographer Gary Bernstein, and Great Plains and American West photographer David Ottenstein among others.

Bill was fortunate enough to evolve and grow with a medium that itself changed. He often wrote off compliments by saying he was ‘someone with little skill and more luck’. False humility aside, Bill’s work spoke for itself. He never stopped building his technical acumen, even taking on digital photography in his last chapter. He couldn’t not shoot and he couldn’t not print. It was an obsession that lasted until the last year of his life.

Thanks to all of our Highlands friends and neighbors. We miss you and the memories of what it takes to live in such a place.

Noah Coleman can be found working the kitchen line at Meals on Wheels, teaching fuel bank energy conservation classes at Interfaith Human Services and serving on the Centre County United Way Human Resources Committee. Noah was a marketing and product management exec in the motion picture and software industries in Los Angeles, CA.