Tonawanda News

June 9, 2013

Tonawanda photographer features American worker in exhibit

Staff reports
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — For Tonawanda photographer Phil Pantano, photographing living, breathing subjects was a bit of a departure.

The artist, who works as a computer analyst at a steel mill, preferred working with old, abandoned buildings. Structures that don’t move, but nonetheless have a story to tell about life, about Western New York.

And then one day a co-worker who goes by the name of Elvis, a live-out-loud lover of the famed singer, came into his office, weary and dirty after a long day of work in the mill.

Pantano said he knew at that moment he had to take Elvis’ photo, and thanks to the boisterous subject who brought up the planned photo sitting later, Pantano had the start of a series on his hands that eventually grew to 19 photographs of Western New Yorkers who work a variety of jobs throughout the area.

That collection will be on display starting Friday at Main (St)udios in Buffalo, kicking off with an opening reception that night 7-10 p.m. featuring drinks, food and even a live band.

Pantano said he’s only been taking photographs for a couple of years now, but knew he had a knack for it stemming from times when he’d play around with the family camera as a kid.

Though he uses a modern digital camera, he says he prefers to work in black and white.

“The black and white I felt would provide the most impact,” Pantano said. “It would be less distracting ... what I wanted to focus on was the look in their face.”

“I love Alfred Hitchcock and I love black-and-white movies so most of my inspiration comes from there,” he added.

Each of the 19 portraits represents a profession typical in America. There’s a steel mill worker, a nurse, a paramedic, a musician, a radio disc jockey and priest, among others. Each subject matter sits before a black back-drop, some with the tools of their trade ready at hand. Most portraits were shot in the subject matter’s home after they got home from work.

“I tell them, ‘You just worked a double, you’re tired, this is the end of your day,’ and I usually throw in ‘Your wife just called and water’s leaking through the ceiling and you don’t know what to do,’ to get them in the mood,” Pantano said.

Ultimately, he said, the key was to photograph the subjects in the most honest way possible. He didn’t have them wear makeup, change their clothes or do anything else to change how they would normally look after a long, hard day at work.

“Everything here is in the eyes ... they tell the story,” he said.

Also telling the story are placards that will be placed next to each of the photographs giving facts about working in the United States. 

“I didn’t want it to become a political statement at all, but I wanted to give statistics,” Pantano said, spouting off facts about the number of vacation, sick and maternity days U.S. workers compared to workers in other countries.

“The basis behind this show is what we do to achieve the American Dream. Most people equate the American Dream to money,” he said.

“I want people to look at the cashier at Tops or the guy greeting you at Walmart and think ‘This guy is trying to achieve the American Dream with whatever he has,’ ” Pantano added.

Pantano’s show, “The American Worker” will be up at Main (St)udios beginning Friday through June 20. The opening reception is 7-10 p.m.

IF YOU GO • WHAT: "The American Worker: A Photographic Series by Phil Pantano" • WHEN: Friday through June 20; opening reception 7-10 p.m. Friday • WHERE: Main (St)udios, 515 Main St., Buffalo • COST: Free • MORE INFORMATION: Visit or, or call 866-6603.