Mohawk Ironworkers at the WTC: aka ‘Skywalkers’

From left: Peter J., fourth-generation ironworker. Mohawk name: Kwan “ne’ let; John, 3rd-generation ironworker. Mohawk name: Tionerahto’:Kon (Under the Clovers). Tintypes by Melissa Cacciola, reproduction photography by D. Primiano (Via Tribeca Trib)

Skillful and daring ironworkers helped build the original World Trade Center, and “legendary among these steely nerved tradesmen are the Mohawk Indians,” writes Carl Glassman in the Tribeca Trib. “Generations of Native Americans worked on the original buildings. They were part of the the rescue and recovery effort of 9/11, and they helped to construct the towers that are there today.” Now, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum has mounted an exhibition of 30 photographs, “Skywalkers: A Portrait of the Mohawk Ironworker at the World Trade Center,” by Melissa Cacciola.

In 2012 and 2013, Cacciola made portraits of the ironworkers using the tintype process, a laborious medium that dates back to the 1850s and made popular during the Civil War as mementos to send to loved ones. The contrast and subtle tonality of the artist’s pictures evoke early photographic portraiture. There are no smile-quick-for-the-camera expressions here. Cacciola’s subjects, their strong features further enhanced by her choice of lighting, must remain motionless for 10 to 15 seconds, the length of time it takes to expose the silver on the metal plate.

“It’s about photographing someone as they would want to be represented and it’s about trust,” said Cacciola, whose tintype portrait projects have included Afghanistan war vets, New Orleans musicians and skateboarders. “You’re never going to get a good portrait if there’s not some relationship, some element of trust. You’re working together to make something beautiful.”

At a recent panel discussion held at the museum in connection with the exhibit, one of Cacciola’s subjects, Lindsay LeBorgne, spoke. Go to Tribeca Trib to read what LeBorgne, a fourth-generation ironworker with roots in the communities of the Mohawk Nation, had to say about the belief that Native Americans have a special gift of balance and nerve.

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