The Portraits Of Phil Pantano: His “American Worker” Series
The idea for Phil Pantano’s photographic series, “The American Worker,” walked into his office at a local steel mill in Lackawanna, New York, where Pantano holds a day job as a computer analyst. The man who came through the door was Jay “Elvis” Borzillieri, a fourth-generation steelworker whose father died in the mill. It doesn’t matter to the story what Elvis stopped in for that day, but when Pantano looked into his face a flash went off in his mind. “It was the look of a man who was glad the day was over. Weary, but proud. You didn’t need to see the dirty clothes to know he’d just put in a full day’s work,” Pantano remembered. “Without a word his face said it all.”
Others have photographed workers at similar job sites, notably Buffalo’s own Milton Rogovin who over the years shot many a blue-collar worker on the job site. “I knew I wanted viewers to focus on the workers without the distraction of backgrounds,” Pantano said, “I wanted them to see that feeling in his face.” He had Elvis come to his home in Tonawanda (a suburb of Buffalo) one day after his shift was over, complete with the sweat, grime, and stress of the workday still very visible. “Black and white was chosen over color,” he added, “because I wanted to capture a certain mood.”
The Series Is Born
It was after looking at the finished images of that session that another flash went off. He got to thinking about that carrot which is dangled in front of many workers—“The American Dream”—and how hard so many work to achieve it. Pantano started thinking about other people he knew who might be suitable subjects for a series of photographs. Of course, this being the age of the Internet meant he could bring up a whole list of people on his computer—some who he knew personally, and some who were just a face and an occasional comment on Facebook.
Two weeks later, “The Musician,” refined blues rocker Myron Sharvan, was his next subject. Sharvan’s music career started in 1972, so he, too, has “been around.” After that, the ball started rolling pretty fast.
Although Pantano never mentioned it, the subjects and titles of his images sound like something out of the old Donovan song “Atlantis.” Besides “The Steelworker” and “The Musician” there was “The Model,” “The Firefighter,” “The Priest,” “The Utility Worker,” and so on.
As the series grew it became apparent that not everyone was a worker in the mill, but all “shared in the myth of The American Dream,” Pantano said. “And it’s not only being chased by mill workers.”
It might be easy to say that a doctor, or even a priest, shouldn’t have any trouble chasing The American Dream. And you’d be partially correct only in the fact that maybe financially their struggles aren’t as severe as say a factory worker or a waitress who maybe is working two or three jobs to make ends meet. But Pantano points out that the 19 subjects in “The American Worker” series experienced the same kind of feeling at the end of their day—be it an eight-hour shift, a weekend spent on call, three hours on stage, or an overtime shift spent at a raging house fire—they were beat. Some mentally, some physically, some both. Beat, but satisfied.
When Pantano’s photographic exhibit of all 19 subjects, 12 of which are shown in these pages, opened locally this past June at the Main (ST)UDIOS in downtown Buffalo, it got rave reviews from a packed house which came from all walks of life. And it wasn’t just 19 photographs hanging on a wall. The subjects were there in person, proudly hanging around to tell their stories; there were QR codes that linked to statistics on the American working public; and biographies of the 19 workers accompanied each photo. Some of them, such as “The DJ” and “The Pastor,” were already widely known to many of the exhibit-goers. In September, the show headed east on the New York State Thruway, where it spent three weeks at the Grass Roots Gallery in Rochester.
The exhibit shots were taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, using a tripod and exposures of up to five seconds. A black umbrella helped keep the lighting just where Pantano wanted it—on the faces. That lighting was accomplished using fluorescent CowboyStudio lights, with each subject seated in front of a black cloth backdrop. Some of the photos were taken in the subjects’ homes or garages—“This non-use of a professional studio only added to the grittiness of the shoot,” Pantano remarked, “as did the simplicity of the shots.” A black umbrella that any one of the subjects could very well have used on the way to the shoot; the inexpensive lights; even the “take a breath and hold it…hold it…hold it” method of bracing the subject for the longer exposure was old school and very much in character with the finished product.
The photos—shot in color—were then brought into Nik software: Color Efex Pro 4 to enhance detail, and Silver Efex Pro 2 to convert them to black and white and bring out even more detail in the faces. The files were then professionally printed in 20x30 format and mounted on foam.
Before the exhibit opened, when asked what he wanted to accomplish with the series, Pantano thought for a minute and replied, “I wanted people to walk away and think about what they’d seen. If they don’t know these people when they go into the show, they’ll certainly feel like they know them on their way out.”
You can see more of Phil Pantano’s work at www.greatlook.com, where you’ll also find contact and social media information.
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