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Photographer captures spirit of working class America

At the end of a long shift at Republic Steel in Lackawanna, one of Western New York’s last operating steel plants, a soot-covered worker straggled into the air-conditioned office of plant computer analyst Phil Pantano.

“I saw the look in his face and in his eyes,” Pantano said of the worker, who goes by the name of Elvis. Pantano was struck, he recalled, by the man’s look of utter exhaustion. “He had just worked a double. I said, ‘Elvis, we’ve got to do something.’ ”

What Pantano did was produce “The American Worker,” a series of 19 photographs and bits and pieces of information about working life in America that opens Friday in Main Street Studios. The project, which grew out of that one weary stare, is Pantano’s tribute to the long and sometimes thankless hours put in by employees across the wide spectrum of American working life.

After photographing Elvis, about a year after his experience in the steel plant office, Pantano began reading about the struggles of American workers from all kinds of careers. He discovered, for instance, that 80 percent of working Americans average seven unpaid hours a week after they leave the office and that Sweden, which ranks ahead of the United States in one comparison of economic competitiveness, mandates five weeks of paid vacation by law.

Something in America’s treatment and perception of its hardest workers seemed amiss to Pantano. So he set out to make stark photographs of workers from all walks of life. His series features a group of characters that could be the cast of a Manny Fried play, each one identified only by their profession: The Artist, The Paramedic, The Musician, The Priest.

“You look at the photos, and in their eyes and their face, each one of them is at the end of a long, hard day,” said Pantano, who first picked up a camera at age 12. “The backstory of it is, every day we give eight hours, 10 hours, 12 hours, one job, two jobs – whatever it takes – and this is what we are left with. Many people relate the American dream to money, but in my series I have a priest, I have a pastor. These people provide service. That is their dream.”

Pantano’s series belongs to a long tradition of photography documenting and honoring the under-sung lives of American workers, whose major champions included the late Buffalo-based photographer Milton Rogovin.

But unlike Rogovin’s photographs, which typically showed the person in the surroundings of his workplace, Pantano’s compositions are presented against a blank, black backdrop. That approach, he said, helps the viewer to focus explicitly on the expressions of the subjects and, perhaps, to let their imagination fill in the details of the lives they led.

For Pantano, it’s about getting people to think differently about the people they encounter in life. He said some have questioned his inclusion of apparently low-stress careers like a priest or a musician without realizing that many workers’ careers become all-consuming.

“Well what does he do? He doesn’t work,” Pantano recalled some viewers implying about the priest in his series. “Well, yeah, he works 24/7. I want people to look at the older guy at Walmart, the greeter, the cashier at Tops or whatever, and think before you judge people. They’re trying to achieve their version of the American dream, whatever it is, wherever it is they can achieve it.”


What: “The American Worker”

When: 7 p.m. Friday through July 3

Where: Main Street Studios, 515 Main St.

Admission: Free

Info: 866.6603 or