I hear the base-line of the sousaphone in my entire body, the unabashed energy of the trumpet and trombone slide, the beat of the snare drum as the beat of my own heart-- without it, we are nothing but a flat-line. The unique tradition of Brass Band music is the heart and soul of New Orleans’ musical culture and history—it is the musical genre that has powered every kind of musical expression from hip-hop and rap to rock and roll. Yet the life affirming beat and pure joy of Brass Band music evolved directly from military funeral processions, reminding us to choose joy even in pain and sorrow.
Brass on Tin tells the story of the New Orleans’ Brass Band tradition through intimate portraits of thirty musicians. From such emerging sartists as Young Pinstripe, 21st Century Brass Band, and Baby Boys to industry legends like the Stooges, Dirty Dozen, Soul Rebels, Treme Brass Band, and Preservation Hall, a personal portrait of each musician emerges as a journey of individual and artistic expression. Using the historic process of the tintype (a photographic positive on a lacquered metal plate, invented during the 1850s), each portrait is a one-of-a-kind image created using a large format camera with an antique lens and hand-made film emulsions and chemistry. Tintyping is an unforgiving medium that requires technical and aesthetic artistry, dedication, precision, and knowledge of its historical and chemical background.
Parallel to the American musical tradition of Brass Bands, the tintype was an American invention that opened up the possibility of portraiture and self-expression to its citizens--rich or poor, male or female, black or white. The unique portraits of Brass on Tin are treasures, talismans of loved ones—bearing witness to the lives we live, our flawed characters, and fears and aspirations, all revealed in a ten second exposure before the camera--that moment of pause and stillness when the music stops and the elusive image lingers before vanishing just outside our grasp.
Skywalkers: the Legacy of the Mohawk Ironworkers at the World Trade Center presents Cacciola's efforts to document this latest generation of Mohawk ironworkers and record a dying tradition. This portfolio represents thirty tintype portraits of Mohawk ironworkers from the Kahnawake and Akwesasne reservations in Canada.
For over a century and a half, Mohawk ironworkers have traveled from Canada to New York City to build our iconic skyline from the Empire State Building to the George Washington Bridge. “A Mohawk family tradition,” the portraits and interviews in this series include fathers and sons, uncles and nephews, cousins near and distant, and friends. Done in gangs of six consisting of connectors, bolters-up, journeymen, taglinemen, and signalmen, ironwork requires strength, skill, and ingenuity to guide massive steel beams weighing up to 20,000 pounds into the steel skeleton of the building. At its peak in the 1950s there were about 800 Mohawks in New York City, now there are as few as 200. Historians have several explanations of how Mohawks got into this business, some say Mohawks honed their balance and strength with a history of hunting, fur trading and later driving logs. Yet as fewer and fewer men are entering the business and the numbers of the Mohawk community shrink, these men know this is a dying tradition.
From an apprentice to a forty-two-year career veteran, the journey of the Mohawk ironworker is told through the landscape of each face. Using the historic process of the tintype (a photographic positive on a lacquered metal plate, invented during the 1850s), Cacciola employs a large format wooden view camera, period brass lenses, and 19th century chemical formulas to create an individual portrait of each ironworker. Some of the earliest tintypes known today are of Native Americans. The relevance of this historic connection, as well as the powerful characteristics of this early form of photography, result in a series of haunting portraits of this small community of men.
The Mohawk ironworker is disappearing and without documentation future generations will no longer know the courage and strength of this community or its legacy in building New York’s iconic skyline.
Throughout history, portraiture has offered us an archaeological snapshot of how we view ourselves and others. Artists engraved the faces of early rulers on coins and painted their beloved on ivory miniatures. Tintype portraiture dates back to the U.S. Civil War and is one of the earliest photographic processes. Its special place in military portraiture began when Matthew Brady brought his photographic darkroom to the battlefield to document the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and the 13th year marking the attacks of September 11th, 2001, this is a time for reflection. Tintyping brings great significance to this portrait project, War and Peace, which presents 26 tintype portraits of active duty military and veterans from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marines as a kind of “confessional” before the camera.
Fifteen men and nine women of various backgrounds, ages, and roles in the armed forces were photographed in uniform and in civilian attire in an exploration of war, identity, and what serving in the armed forces means. These double portraits contrast each individual and his or her role in the military against his or her identity in a contemporary world that is constantly shifting culturally and politically. A chef, an infantry rifleman, an explosive ordnance device disabler, and a fuel carrier are just a few of the diverse individuals represented. Through the photographic lens, we can study just how the airman in his dress blues relates to the man in the Guns N’ Roses t-shirt.
The unique medium of the tintype celebrates our individuality in the age of digital photography. As we are accosted daily by fleeting images on electronic devices, there is a growing feeling that images lose their sense of permanence or uniqueness. Photographs are no longer created by a chemical interaction between light and silver, but with pixilation and computers with software that is engineered to erase our scars and correct anything ordained to be a flaw. War and Peace makes visible the present-day faces of those in service, a cross-section of our society that we may not often have the chance to meet. Through the tintype, our humanity—epic and small—becomes transfixed by the intrinsic characteristics of one of the earliest photographic processes.
Melissa Cacciola studied fine art and the historic preservation of art at Columbia University and New York University. Trained by the legendary John Coffer, she specializes in tintype and 19th century photographic processes. Using a large format camera and a 19th century Darlot lens, Cacciola hand-makes each tintype from the photographic emulsion to the lavender and gum sandarac varnish.
Tintyping is an unforgiving medium that requires technical and aesthetic artistry and knowledge of its historical and chemical background. Although conversant with other types of photography, Cacciola uses this historic process to create powerful portraits that haunt us as specters of our imagination, nostalgia, and the past. The long exposure time needed to make a tintype transposes the sitter’s gaze as he or she must remain completely still for nine to twelve seconds—the constraints of the tintype medium here redefine our notions of what it means to photograph and be photographed. Melissa has worked with various communities to tell their stories, including the United States military, the Mohawk ironworkers, New York artists, and New Orleans Brass Band musicians.
Solo exhibitions featuring her portraits have included the National Museum of the Marine Corps, the Steven Kasher Gallery, the Alice Austen House, New Orleans' famed Preservation Hall, and the Customs House in Sydney, Australia. Melissa’s work has been published in The New York Times, TIME Magazine and TIME LightBox, NPR, and Newsweek. She is also the recipient of several grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the New York State Department of Cultural Affairs, the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and the New Orleans’ Jazz and Heritage Foundation. Melissa is based in Brooklyn, New York.
Cacciola is represented by the Steven Kasher Gallery of New York. For sales, please contact Steven Kasher at 212-966-3978.