We first spotted the work of photographer Tom M. Johnson in Popular Photography with a feature on his parking booth project, a series of unusual and arresting photos of Pittsburgh parking lot attendants in their booths. Intrigued, we read about Johnson, an editorial and advertising portrait photographer recently arrived in Pittsburgh, whose work has been featured in The New York Times, Forbes, O, and many other publications.
We connected with Tom and learned about The Pittsburgh Project, his ongoing series of portraits of Pittsburghers which was inspired by a talk by our mayor. Tom talked to many people around town asking for suggestions on who to photograph and thus far has photographed 16 subjects, all featured here.
“Since arriving in Pittsburgh I’ve been on a quest of finding a photographic project. I’m always with camera: making images of Pittsburgh’s multiple perspectives and textures; however, I was seeking a particular topic. Then a couple of months ago, I was at a PRA event where Mayor Peduto was the guest speaker. He gave a fascinating talk about the “Pittsburgh Story:” anecdotes of how Pittsburgh and its people turned the city around from its low in the late ’70s to what it has become today, ‘The Most Livable City in America.’
His talk inspired me to create my own Pittsburgh Story. I’m interested in making portraits of Pittsburgh’s most colorful and interesting people—not necessarily the successful entrepreneurs, famous athletes, TV personalities, or well-known politicians, but those folks who give Pittsburgh its flavor, color, and character. You might see these individuals when you go to a Pirates, Steelers, or Penguins game, or it could be your parking lot attendant. The kind of folks who make you smile and can warm you up on a dreary day. The person could be your butcher or mail lady, your favorite bartender or florist, your priest or tattoo artist or your lover or ex-lover. If you know of someone who you believe fits this description please send me their contact info or at least let me know where I can find them.”
Welcome to town, Tom M. Johnson. We look forward to seeing more.
I photographed Christiane Leach the week the country witnessed the killings of two black men by police in Baton Rouge, LA, and St. Paul, MN, followed by killings of 5 police officers in Dallas, TX. Those events weighed heavily on us throughout our photo shoot. The beautiful dress and hat and the church were arranged prior to the day of the shoot, yet the garments and location, somewhat by happenstance, perfectly enhanced the mood that befell us. All I did was light the scene and place Christiane in it. It was really she who made the photograph.”
“At 6’8″ Bubba is a monster of a man and has a rather stern demeanor until you get to know him. Turns out he is the sweetest guy you’d ever want to know. However, I wouldn’t want to make him mad. Before he started working at Sammy’s as a bartender 30 years ago, he was a professional wrestler.”
“Tom Walker is an art director who is a bit of an icon in the advertising world of Pittsburgh. Mullen has since closed its Pittsburgh offices, yet when Tom worked there, he commuted from where he lives in Millvale to the other side of the Allegheny via kayak. Once at work, Tom would park his kayak in his office space. With his mustache and glasses, he reminds me of Theodore Roosevelt.”
Joshua “Stretch” Carter, graphic artist. “I’m always looking for interesting characters. People who stand out in a crowd, and at 6’8″ and 190 pounds, Stretch definitely stands out in a crowd. He recently graduated from Carlow University and now works at rue21 as a graphic designer. He also represents what I most like about Pittsburghers, he is just incredibly pleasant.”
“Ryan Borgo, actor/singer, has dreams of being on Broadway. Many of Pittsburgh’s talented youth are choosing to remain here and are now a driving force in the city’s resurgence. Ryan is the nephew of my wife’s best friend, so I’ve gotten to know him on a personal level. He represents the current Pittsburgh, yet he respects and maintains the reverence for Pittsburgh’s traditions. He’s quite talented and though he may depart the city for his dream to be on Broadway, his heart will always be in Pittsburgh.”
“Michael “Reese” has been a bike messenger in Pittsburgh for over 20 years. One of the Art Directors at Garrison Hughes referred me to him. Come rain, snow, heat, the city’s hills, potholed streets, and its crazy drivers, Reese is never deterred and always delivers his packages on time with a smile. This is one of those rare moments when he isn’t.”
“Randyland is more than Randy’s passion. It’s his life. If he’s not working, he’s entertaining visitors to his creation on the Northside with hugs, smiles and encouragement. He especially loves kids and if you spend a fair amount of time with Randy, you realize he’s Pittsburgh’s Peter Pan. Without Randy, Randyland is merely land.”
Mr. Ron: busboy at Pamela’s in the Strip. “His smile is as big as Pamela’s pancakes are good. He just adds to the whole upbeat ambiance at Pamela’s. He’s had a pretty tough life, and he’s one of those people who are just happy to be alive. He credits Pamela’s owners Pam Cohen and Gail Klingensmith for turning his life around.”
Maurice Cole grew up in Hazelwood and remains there today. As a kid he vividly recalls the mills and vibrancy of Hazelwood, then the disappearance of the mills, the jobs those mills supplied, and the depression that followed. Now he is seeing businesses return accompanied by smiles on faces of his neighbors. Growing up, his favorite pastime was going to the YMCA on Chatsworth Avenue. Now his favorite activity is his job at John Minadeo Elementary School, where he works with kids in the community. He says, “going to work is like putting gasoline in my car . “
“Lou Castelli, the man who knows everyone in the Cultural District, is the Director of External Affairs for the Pittsburgh Public Theater. I selected this photograph of Lou, because as he says, it most accurately fits his personality and it also well illustrates the simple beauty of the O’Reilly Theater’s wood paneling. The interior of the theater was designed by world-renowned postmodernist architect Michael Graves, and it’s worth the price of admission alone to take in the beautiful work of this most famous architect.”
Joe Hardy, 84 Lumber and Nemacolin Woodland Resort owner. Joe’s daughter Maggie put him on a holistic diet and he lost a lot of weight and looks and feels great. He’s in his nineties and he remains active in his businesses and in life.”
Carol Pascuzzi, aka Dearheart, former employee at Penn Mac in the Strip broke our hearts by moving out of town to be with family. It’s not quite the same without her. But the memory lives on.
“Cathy Gamble, crossing guard in Lawrenceville. She caught my attention when I drove by her and she threw me a kiss. Turns out she does that with everyone who smiles at her. She definitely is through and through a Pittsburgher and she also tends bar at Nied’s Hotel up the street.”
Bill Guerin, assistant general manager for the Penguins. Needless to say, he’s had a very good year.”In the winter when it’s cold enough to ice his outdoor rink, he plays pickup hockey games with his family.”
“Aggie Brose and Rick Swartz, neighborhood activists in Bloomfield-Garfield, are are well-known and well-loved for their passion and community work.”
“Antonia “Antoinette” Haggerty, is an icon at Primanti Bros. in the Strip. If you don’t know her yet, make it a point to do so. In a legend of a place, she’s a legend in her own right.”