Reading the obituary of John Rygiel last Sunday morning propelled me back to my late teens and early 20s when, even though I was the sports editor of the local newspaper, a big part of my job — and perhaps the most important part — was placing bridal photos on newspaper pages.
“When you work at a small, local newspaper you have to wear a lot of hats,” I can hear Dick Cosgrove telling me on the day I was hired. Dick was the advertising manager who served as a copy editor and occasionally covered a school board or council meeting. He also drew cartoons. As an art major in college, I soon found my part-time sports gig also including the occasional cartoon assignment and quickly morphed into page design.
Much has changed in the newspaper business in the last 50 years but perhaps nothing more than what we used to call the “society” or “social” section. That’s where the brides were. And the brides-to-be. And that’s where you’d see the artistic genius of legendary local professional photographers I called “The Big Three.” There were others in the business, but I’d say a good 80 percent of the bridal portraits I’d come across were by either Angelo Bufalino, Steve Lukasik or John Rygiel.
Part of my job in designing those pages was to place a “photo credit” under those portraits. This was a tiny, 6-point line informing readers who took the photo. Once — and only once, thank God — I screwed up and put a Lukasik credit under a Rygiel photo. What a war that created. Fortunately, they were all my friends and therefore quick to forgive. But I doubt they ever forgot. I know I didn’t, and was hyper-vigilant about those tiny credits from then on.
There was a photographic routine to getting married back then that kept The Big Three busy. The first step was the engagement photo. Almost as soon as she said “yes” a bride-to-be would schedule a formal sitting at a studio to have a photo taken for the paper.
By the way, rarely, if ever, did you see the groom-to-be in those photos. Until John Rygiel started it. He was clearly the more daring of The Big Three, more willing to try something different. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Back to the “routine.” Once the wedding day drew near, the next step kicked in: the pre-bridal.
The bride-to-be went back to the photo studio two to three weeks before her wedding with her hair done the exact way she would wear it for the wedding, and often with a bouquet of fresh flowers identical to the ones she would be carrying. She’d dress in her wedding gown and spend a good deal of time posing for a perfect portrait, which each of The Big Three was determined to provide.
That photo would appear in the Sunday paper the very day after her wedding. In was not unusual in those days, for photos of six or eight or even 10 brides, all wed the day before, to appear in those society sections. Readers, particularly women, would dive into the paper first thing Sunday morning just to see the brides. How we allowed all of that to disappear, I have no idea. But it baffles and saddens me that we did.
I got to know each of The Big Three — technically four, I suppose, since Bill Lukasik worked alongside brother Steve at Lukasik Studio — quite well and got to the point where I’d recognize their work just by looking at the photo. Each had a unique style and each a specific following. Long before she was even engaged, a local young women already knew who’d be taking her bridal portrait and photographing her wedding. There was a lot of family loyalty, too, meaning each of the three typically photographed a grandmother, mother and new bride in a given family.
All three were true artists, often shooting those bridal portraits on 8-by-10 negatives to capture every detail. All three had won awards for their work. And all three were real characters.
The Lukasiks were tinkerers. They could fix anything, from their automobiles to their plumbing, and they took those skills into the studio. Steve was producing Photoshop-like Christmas cards decades before Photoshop was invented. He did it all in the darkroom.
With his Albert Einstein-like wild, white hair, Angelo Bufalino was a perfectionist in an almost maniacal way. I once saw several dozen copies of the same photo strewn all over his studio, with Buff, as we all called him, in the darkroom printing yet another. I could not tell the difference among them, but to Buff none were up to his standards. And he wasn’t going to stop until one was. He was like Hemingway spending his whole life trying to write “one perfect sentence.”
No offense to the others, but John Rygiel was the most stylish of the group. I always thought he lived up to his name, pronounced “regal.” He carried himself regally (lame jokes aside) and was always willing to take a leadership role in the community.
Buff was the first of The Big Three to go, passing away in 1983. I was one of his pall bearers, along with the Lukasik brothers. Steve Lukasik died in 2009 and Billy followed six years later. Now, John Rygiel joins them.
But none of them will ever truly be gone. Their bridal portraits adorn the walls and table tops of homes throughout Greater Pittston and their photos fill the pages of hundreds of wedding albums. Plus, their names in that 6-point type appear under bridal photos in countless newspaper clippings pasted in scrapbooks or pressed between the pages of family Bibles.
In John Rygiel’s obituary, which he wrote himself, he said his philosophy was “to live your life so that when you die people will remember you for what you left behind.” That John Rygiel did. That they all did.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week for Greater Pittston Progress. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.