To capture movement and life in a still image: For many years this was Tom Pantaleo’s quest as a photographer. The photos that cover the walls of Main Street Coffee & Tea, Pantaleo’s small, unpretentious café in downtown Franklin, are a testament to his passion for the perfect image. Whether landscape, portrait or abstract, each image seems to vibrate with a kind of kinetic energy.
While his search for the dynamic image continues, a lot has changed about his art in recent years, says Pantaleo. “I love movement, but now I see movement differently,” he said during a recent conversation in his photography studio – a small room behind the coffee bar, full of old cameras, old props and other tools of the trade.
The past decade has brought the most radical revolution in photography in 100 years as digital has all but replaced film as the medium of both commercial and fine art photography. Less than 10 years ago, when Pantaleo first moved to Franklin from Brooklyn, N.Y., via New Jersey, he was still using film. Pantaleo was a professional portrait and event photographer in New York, and when he and his wife, Sandy, moved to Franklin, they purchased a film developing shop called “50 Minute Photo.” But as cheap digital cameras became ubiquitous, business declined, and the Pantaleos were forced to move on.
“I fought it to the very end,” said Pantaleo of going digital. But once he finally made the switch himself, he embraced it and hasn’t looked back.
On the walls of Main Street Coffee & Tea, one can see the results of Pantaleo's experimentation with the new tools: vivid colorscapes and manipulations that ironically give some of his work a very organic, hand-painted quality. As experienced photographers know, after the click of the shutter, the incredible range of variables that contribute to an image has only begun and in the days of film, Pantaleo did his time in the darkroom, working in almost every medium possible.
But what used to be done laboriously in the darkroom, can now all be done on computer, says Pantaleo. He says he does miss some things about the hands-on work of the darkroom but not the strong chemicals. And digital allows him both to experiment more and to control the variables much more precisely. “It’s like you’ve given me another 180 crayons to play with,” Pantaleo said of the creative potential of digital photography.
Going digital has opened up a whole world of possibilities in terms of how images can be adjusted and manipulated. Digital single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras are also incredibly flexible. “These cameras give me the ability to shoot at midnight if I want to, as long as I have moonlight. It's opened my vision up to see totally differently from how I have in the past.”
Pantaleo, who is currently using a digital Nikon 35mm SLR camera, remarked that the accessibility and affordability of state of the art equipment and software has had the effect of giving a lot of older artists like himself a second chance. “It opens it up to a lot of artists who are sitting around and wondering what they can do now to get back into the industry again.”
On the other hand, the new technology brings with it a steep learning curve. “I’m not like a kid that can just absorb all of this stuff,” said Pantaleo. And it’s not just computers that he’s had to adapt to.
“Do I shoot for the highlights or do I shoot for the shadows? It’s totally reverse for digital,” he said, explaining how he has even changed the way he approaches his subjects with a digital camera.
To helping him navigate the brave new world of digital, he has often turned to his friend and collaborator, Lonnie Busch, a successful graphic artist and regular contributor to stock photography houses like Corbis. Together, the two founded Blaze Orange Productions, a video production company which creates projects for the web, television, big screen advertising and “anything that needs to get moving.”
Pantaleo and Busch have now been working together for more than five years, and the Blaze Orange website (blazeorangeproductions.com) has a large portfolio of commercial projects the team has done. Digital cameras have made the transition to video a natural progression, says Pantaleo, who notes that a large amount of commercial film and television work is now done with handheld high definition cameras.
The speed of the internet and the pervasiveness of the technology has revolutionized how projects are approached in commercial photography. “It’s revolutionizing how we see things, how we do things,” Pantaleo said. “Everybody wants it moving; nobody wants just a still shot anymore.”
One might think all these changes would be overwhelming, but speaking to Pantaleo one gets the impression that he has been invigorated by the chance to learn new things and push his own boundaries. Listening to him and Busch, the collaborators quickly wax techno, talking about codex formats and frame rates, but when Pantaleo turns to his photographs on the wall, he just as quickly returns to the fundamentals of his art.
“I like abstraction; I like taking something and manipulating it, which I couldn't do as a painter, per se, but which I know how to do as a photographer.” The art of manipulation, which he now does on a computer, he first learned from such classic old-school mediums as film transfers and platinum and palladium photography, experience which he says continues to influence his work no matter how experimental he gets.
“You’ve got to learn the basics first,” Pantaleo emphasizes. “It’s a growing process, and it takes time and experience.”