For more than a century, ironworkers descended from the Mohawk Indians of Quebec have helped create New York City’s iconic skyline, guiding ribbons of metal into the steel skeletons that form the backbone of the city. In the tradition of their fathers and grandfathers, a new generation of Mohawk iron workers now descend upon the World Trade Center site, helping shape the most distinct feature of Lower Manhattan—the same iconic structure their fathers and grandfathers helped erect 40 years ago and later dismantled after it was destroyed in 2001.
Driving some 360 miles south to New York from the Kahnawake reserve near Quebec, these men work—just as their fathers did—in the city during the week and spend time with their families on the weekends.
One year ago, around the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, photographer Melissa Cacciola began documenting some of these workers—not an easy task given that the roughly 200 Mohawks (of more than 2,000 iron workers on site) are working at a frantic pace, helping One World Trade Center to rise a floor a week.
Cacciola, a photographer with a background in chemistry and historic preservation, is one of few photographers who work exclusively with tintypes, images recorded by a large-format camera on sheets of tin coated with photosensitive chemicals. Having previously photographed members of the armed-forces for her War and Peace series, Cacciola looked to document those continuing to help the city move past the shadow of tragedy.
“It seemed like a real New York thing,” she told TIME. “And it made sense as the next chapter in the post-9/11 landscape. Rebuilding is part of that story.”
Just as towers like the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center mark the height of America’s skyscraper architecture, tintype photographs are inherently American. Tintype developed in the 1850s as early American photographers looked for alternatives to the expensive and finicky glass-plate processes popular in Europe. Recycled tin was a readily available resource in the new nation—less than 100 years old—and so the tintype grew in popularity, earning its place in American photographic identity. Even Abraham Lincoln’s campaign pins contained an inlaid tintype portrait of the candidate.
“You don’t find tintypes on other continents,” Cacciola said.
Slightly blurry and sepia-toned, Cacciola’s portraits feel timeless, save for the occasional modern stickers on her subjects’ hardhats. Each portrait focuses tightly on the men’s strong facial features.
The 30 tintypes in the series are each made from bulk sheets of tin, although Cacciola has also used recycled biscuit jars in prior tintype projects. Coated first with a black lacquer and then a layer of collodion emulsion to make them light sensitive, the plates are dipped in a silver bath immediately before exposure to form silver iodide—a step that bonds actual particles of silver to the emulsion. Nothing could be more fitting for men working with steel to be photographed on metal.
In the tradition of 19th-century photography, Cacciola’s process is slower than today’s digital systems. But the finished plates are more than simple portraits; rather, they hold their own weight as tangible objects. Just as histories often reflect the blemishes of times past, Cacciola’s tintypes are fragile, containing marks and slight imperfect artifacts that reflect the medium’s limitations. Working by hand rather than machine, each portrait records the artist’s intentions as much as her subject’s.
“These tintypes are so much a part of me,” she says. “Like the fact that you get partial fingerprints or artifacts from the way I’m pouring collodion on the plate—it’s all human. The way silver and light interact in this chemical reaction is a testament to the Mohawk iron workers and this early [photographic] process—it’s unparalleled in terms of portraiture.”
Melissa Cacciola is a New York-based tintype photographer.