Annie O'Neill's Work in Progress at Filmmakers Galleries | Program Notes

Annie O'Neill's Work in Progress at Filmmakers Galleries

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The North Side-based photographer's gorgeous series of portraits of people with 50 years or more at the same job is turning into her life's work, at least part-time.

O'Neill was working for the Detroit News in 1995 when she was assigned to photograph a family. The father was a barber. "I found out he was 92 ... He honestly didn't look like he was over 65," says O'Neill. "He talked about how work was really important to him."

Over the 16 years since -- including her 12-year stint as an award-winning staffer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette -- O'Neill has plugged away with her medium-format camera. She's captured people from every walk of life, from artists like Frank Mason (pictured) to manual laborers.

This collection of 18 large-scale black-and-white portraits is on exhibit at Filmmakers through this weekend.

There's the late Umberto Buccigrossi, the late Bloomfield shoemaker she shot years ago for the P-G, captured in a beatific moment. ("You make me feel like a king," he told her as she lugged her lights and camera into his shop.)

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Among the more recent shoots was Dick LeBeau (pictured), the Steelers coach whom O'Neill learned has over a half-century of service in the National Football League. 

Some portraits were made far away, like the one of an indigenous basket-weaver on Nunavak Island, in the Bering Sea, whom O'Neill caught laughing uproariously as the wind catches her big scarf.

Nearer to home is Dorsal Bibbee, a grave-digger from Tuppers Plains, Ohio, who still works with a shovel. O'Neill shot him by a freshly dug grave so we can see the hole's plum-straight sides, as flat-planed as if hewn by machine.

Filmmakers' galleries also feature Uniformity, an exhibit of smaller color photos of people -- mostly Pittsburghers -- who wear uniforms, from road crews and nuns to a tagger and a street performer.

That show is charming, but odds are it's Work in Progress where you'll linger. O'Neill credits her subjects' personalities: "They all had a real strong sense of purpose and a real vitality to them."

They also, perhaps not surprisingly, tend to think poorly of retirement.

Take Barbara Luderowski, a near-neighbor of O'Neill's whom she was inspired to photograph close-up, at eye level -- and from behind, emphasizing the Mattress Factory Art Museum founder's distinctive silhouette of short silver hair.

Luderowski "thinks retirement is just ridiculous -- something somebody made up," says O'Neill.

Then there's Arthur Winston, who spent 72 years as a Los Angeles transit employee, then died weeks after retiring ... at age 100.

O'Neill makes her living primarily by shooting for local magazines and nonprofits; she photographs weddings, too. She says her own attitude toward work was forged growing up in Long Island, as one of 10 kids whose parents owned a deli. Her dad, she recalls, was unhappy in retirement.

"I can't imagine myself retiring," says O'Neill. "I want to do it forever. I want to be a 50-year person."

Filmmakers Galleries, 477 Melwood Ave., N. Oakland, are open noon-7 p.m. today and tomorrow, noon-6 p.m. Friday. 412-681-5449 or www.pghfilmmakers.org

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