Interview with Melissa Cacciola



5 minutes reading

New York based photographer Melissa Cacciola specialises in tin-type and nineteenth-century photographic processes. Through portraiture, her work offers an archaeological snapshot of how we view ourselves and others against the digital era. During the last edition of Slideluck Potshow London, Cacciola presented 'War and Peace': a stunning portraiture series of men and women in their uniforms and civil garb. Maria Teresa Salvati, Director of SLPS London, interviewed her. The portraits can be seen here.

War and Peace is a beautiful portraiture series of men and women in their uniforms and civil garb. Where did you find inspiration for this project?
Tintype portraiture dates back to the Civil War and is one of the earliest photographic processes in history. 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 one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War, and the tenth year marking the attacks on September 11th, 2001, I wanted to photograph active duty military and veterans from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marines as a kind of confessional before the camera. My objective, however, was not to duplicate Civil War portraits, but to use the honesty of the tintype medium to create modern-day portraits of the military.

What did you want to achieve by pairing a photo of the person wearing their uniform with another of that same person in their civilian clothes?
I was interested in exploring concepts of identity, war, and service. What does wearing a uniform mean to who we are and to our place within society? These double tintype portraits contrast each individual and his or her role in the military with his or her identity in a contemporary world that is constantly shifting culturally and politically. A chef, an infantry rifleman, an explosive ordinance device disabler, and a fuel carrier are just a few of the diverse individuals represented. I asked each person to make his or her civilian portrait as personal as possible and to use it as an opportunity to explore his or her own uniqueness. Each subject was incredibly thoughtful about these conceptual issues. To that end, Sarah, a Naval officer who has been deployed to Afghanistan, wore her grandmother’s earrings, while Ray, a member of the New York Coast Guard who served during 9/11, chose a guyabera shirt to symbolize his cultural heritage. The format of these double portraits encourages the viewer to study differences and similarities between them and to draw his or her own conclusions.

How did you recruit all these people?
Recruiting people was the ultimate challenge, but I never gave up and I think my persistence and drive really helped me to see this project through to completion. I began by calling, writing, and e-mailing five government branches, my local congressman, and also by visiting recruiting offices. Without having connections or contacts, this can be an impossible process. It wasn’t until I made contact with two former marines, that things began to move forward. Also, the Coast Guard, the United States Navy, the United States Army, and the Wounded Warrior Project gave me their full support so that I could get access to the people I needed. So many people trusted me, without knowing me or about my work. I could not have told their story otherwise.

Wet-plate or tintype technique results in these amazing portraits, which are soft, full of details and texture. Why did you decide to use this technique?
I think photography is so much about discovering your own voice and finding the right vehicle to express what you see. I have used a variety of cameras from 35mm to digital, but it wasn’t until I began to experiment with wet-plate processes and tintyping that I was able to capture the way I see the world. At that moment, everything began to click. Portraiture is the genre I am most drawn to - not architecture or landscape or still life. And portraiture only really works when people are totally honest and vulnerable. To completely let your guard down is truly rare. Tintyping for me captures who we really are. Our flaws, changes in mood, the interchangeability of who we are, become transfixed by the intrinsic characteristics of this historic process. The incredible palpability of each wrinkle, freckle, and hair oscillates with an uncanny presence within these images, haunting us as specters of our imagination, nostalgia, and the past.

Where did you learn the skills for it?
Tintyping requires extreme technical precision and artistry, in addition to a thorough knowledge of chemistry. I learned this process both by trial and error and from master tintyper John Coffer - a legend in his own right.

For you it must all be in the pre-production. Do you want to tell us about the process and how long it takes to shoot one portrait?
A portrait session takes about an hour. I need roughly fifteen minutes for each exposure from setting up the lighting to adjusting the shot for my subject, releasing the shutter, and processing the plate in the darkroom. Of course, there is also a lot that needs to happen before a shoot, as all of the photochemistry from the emulsion to the developer must be hand-mixed. But nothing compares to the moment in which you fix the plate and the image materialises. It is indescribable and addictive.

Would you be able to achieve this with digital photography?
I couldn’t achieve this kind of portraiture with digital photography, no. Tintyping is the first process to revolutionize portraiture, making it possible for anyone to have his or her portrait taken, regardless of class or wealth. Digital is really vital for fieldwork, travel photography, and many other genres, but it doesn’t work for the kind of portraits I am after. And the differences between processes or techniques, in a way, become the very thing we most value. I love the way tintypes capture our unique individuality and the way the flow of the collodion, a single particle of silver, or one of my fingerprints becomes fossilised on the plate. Each little artifact from the process is all there. I don’t need or want post-production effects. What could be more powerful than going back to the origins of photography and to a process that harnesses the chemical interaction between real silver particles and light?