Dec 182012



New York City is in a state of constant transformation. Ever since the 1600’s, 
scores of men have combined forces to mold the small island of Manhattan into 
a skyline of glass and steel.  Who are the hands that hammer the nails and weld the 
steel that forms the backbone of New York City?


Adam Marelli New York City Construction Portraits

High above the streets, they wait for the sections of the crane to be hoisted into place. OnSite © Adam Marelli


•   •   •

When people think of artists, what names come to mind? Picasso, Warhol, Dali, and Pollack?  Painters are the dominant force in the art world and have been for a few hundred years.  The work is easily reproducible, hangs well on a wall and travels nicely in books.  The proof is evident on every bookshelf from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the dwindling Barnes and Nobles.  Painting is, and forever will be, arts most prolific child.  All the critics who predicted the death of painting when the camera was invented were dead wrong.  Painting is alive and well, filling museums, galleries and auction houses across the globe.

But very few artists have attempted careers that cross the boundaries of painting, sculpture and architecture.  These overlapping fields require an enormous investment in time and resources, one that most artists are not willing to endure.  The artists like Michelangelo, who took this long and bumpy road played a critical role in my personal development.  They were willing to master mechanical, civil, and material engineering along with anatomy, painting and sculpture.  Why did artists like Bernini and Michelangelo tackle such vast quantities of work?  We will let the psychoanalysts dissect their motives, but as an artist it seems clear that they were infinitely curious about the world around them.  And they were willing to sacrifice some time to better understand the techniques of building.

Their almost maniacal pursuit of knowledge left piles of notes, sketches and unfinished masterpieces.  These works were a source of constant fascination for me as an art student.  I wanted see into the DNA of a form so I could decode, understand how it worked and rearrange it anew.  The only problem is that art school doesn’t teach any courses in x-ray vision.  If I was ever going to see into a form I was going to have to learn to build it myself.

A carpenter climbs to the platform which will become the 21st floor. OnSite © Adam Marelli


•   •   •

When I finished art school I left with a pile of false confidence and a even bigger pile of student loans to repay.  I needed to find a job.  Unlike many of my wealthier classmates I could not afford to intern,  assist, or any of the other laughably low paying jobs the creative world offers to recent graduates.  I needed a real job, where I could make enough money to live and make art on the side.  On a whim I decided to get involved in New York City construction.  The thought process was simple:  I had half a dozen pints of beer, made a list of everything that interested me and picked the only options that might work.  Scrawling on a bar napkin at my local spot on Saint Mark’s Street, my list looked like this:

  • Architecture
  • Photography
  • Strippers
  • Construction
  • Polar Exploration
  • Travel
  • Beer

The choices narrowed pretty quickly since I had never met a polar explorer, could not figure out who would pay me to travel, knew that hanging around strippers would cost me money quicker than I could earn it and did not want to do fashion photography (at the time I only knew fashion/commercial photographers who made a living)  all that was left was architecture and construction.

Up and down, all day long. The forms are put in place for future columns. OnSite © Adam Marelli


•   •   •

Fast forward ten years, three companies and a $100 million dollars later in completed projects.  Construction was good to me.  It leveled out that inflated confidence, took care of the student loans and gave me the best education on architecture and the history of NYC that I could have asked for.  I was given the opportunity to built in the most exclusive addresses in Manhattan, built for celebrities, art collectors and the clinically insane (you know who you are), survived a near building collapse and lived to talk about it.  Learning from actual builders completely reshaped any ideas I ever had about building, architecture and materials.  Its was like a ten year doctorate program.  Fortunately I met a handful of brilliant builders who opened my eyes to the world of building.

Four years after I hung up the hard hat, I wanted to dive back into construction and make a series of portraits of NYC construction.  On a chance encounter, I met a site supervisor who agreed to let me on his job site.  How do you get on to a job site? Its tough.  The miles of paperwork that it would require for a non-construction worker to gain access is almost insurmountable.  It was only because of my background that I could get OnSite.  Unlike the typical architectural photographers who make building progress shots or the occasional pictures for newspapers, I was free to roam the job site.  Charlie, the super, knew that I was familiar with running sites myself.  This allowed him to do his job, without worrying about my safety.

Over the next three months, I spent about two days a week OnSite.  Why did I take these pictures?  Well there were two reasons, one I knew immediately and the other did not become clear until months later.  Initially I wanted to point a camera at the men actually doing work.  There are plenty of archival shots of workers perched on half completed bridges.  Eugene de Salgniac made a great series on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.  But I wanted a more personal view of the work these men did everyday.

The second reason revealed itself when a friend asked me:

Are you more interested in the idea that “something” is being built?

Or the idea that someone builds it?

Or are you interested in the story behind the person who does the building?

For this project, I was interested in #2.  I wanted to focus on the fact that buildings don’t grow in concrete.  In spite of all the technological advancements, buildings are still very much made by people.

Jimmy, the laborer, takes a breather. OnSite © Adam Marelli


•   •   •

One image stand out in the series of a laborer named Jimmy.  It reminded me of the hours of labour we sink into building, without any recognition.  After the dust settles and the welds cool, we look, for a moment, in quiet satisfaction of a job well done.

The first day I was invited to shoot OnSite was for the raising of the crane.  This work is done on the weekends, so as not to disturb the daily flow of four hundred people that will work during the week.  A skeleton crew of carpenters, laborers, welders, and riggers came in to add three new sections to the crane.  A typical construction crane needs to be tied back to the building every seven floors.   The next time you pass a huge construction site, count the number of floors between tie backs and you will see what I mean.  On this day, the three new sections meant adding a new tie back which needed to be bolted and welded to the structural core of the building.

In order to secure a crane, twenty stories above the street, a massive collar of steel needs to be connected to steel plates which are cast into the elevator shafts.  Over the course of 6 hours, the sections were hoisted into place, outriggers were set and the crane collar was installed.  Cranes and buildings are not stationary, in spite of their enormous size.  They both sway with the wind and have a certain amount of elasticity to their structures.

After all of the rigging and carpentry work was completed, there was a quick break as the welders started to make final connections.  It was in this moment, that Jimmy, took a break.  He leaned back against a temporary wooden rail as his mind drifted off to the horizon.  The hours of hard work dissolved as he entered a waking dream.  It all froze for an instant.  Exhausted and satisfied, the bulk of his work was complete.  I knew that feeling all too well.

Eric merges with the skyline as he measures the next form. OnSite © Adam Marelli


•   •   •

It does not matter if you work in construction, sit in a cubicle or chase kids around the house all day.  Sweat comes in many forms, but the feeling at the end of a hard day is the same.  The mixture of satisfaction, frustration, and everything in between will occupy most of our adult lives.  Maybe if I took that job at the strip club, things might have gone differently.  Many of you might have preferred a few pictures of Bianca on stage two, than Jimmy on the 14th floor.  So whether your pictures taste like beer and perfume or milk and cookies remember that photography is not just about “picture taking.”  Its the chance to find a common ground with the person next to you and leave a trace of understanding for the next generation to explore.


  12 Responses to “OnSite: Construction Portraits by Adam Marelli”

  1. I was waiting for you to write about your construction project. A great piece- we often walk around and take for granted all that people build with their own hands.

    • Hey Andrew,

      Great to hear from you and glad that you were finally able to see more of the images with the back story. I did not have a chance to explain the work as well in the talks, but this is a great format for them.

      How has your working been coming along?


  2. I’m really glad you shared these images. I’m a carpenters son and these really hit home. I don’t think most people realize how important builders are to a society.

    • Hey Mark,

      Really happy that someone who grew up with a tool belt hung in the house, had a chance to see the images. Every year the world flocks to the most impressive structures in the world, and all to often, we don’t even know who to thank for them.


  3. Hello Adam. You have quickly become my photography idol/hero. Please allow me to explain. I am a 25 year old american high school football coach. We are not expected to be very artistic, at least not according to the stereotype. I am also a school psychologist pursuing a master’s degree. My heritage and my personal history do not give the slightest indication that I would have a passion for art, particularly for photography. I’ve always felt hesitent about personally venturing into photography because of the limitations I placed on myself. I felt I couldn’t be both a football coach and a photogapher. I could not see how I could merge my identity as an artist with my identity as a psychologist/therapist. I am responsible for the construction of these barriers within my own soul. I recently – as in a few weeks ago – finally made peace with myself. I realized that I could create whatever identity I wanted for myself. Why not a fly fishing photographing football coaching therapist? When I discovered your work and I read your story, I was simply speechless.

    You worked in the most stereotypically masculine of professions for years. You are an adventurer and traveler. And yet you are also an amazing artist. You blazed your own trail. I truly admire the life you have created for yourself. You have inspired me to continue to construct my own identity, and not follow some preconcieved notion of what an artist could or should be.

    So for this, and for your wonderful work, I sincerely thank you.

    • Dear Timothy,

      Thank you for the thoughtful letter. I am glad that my work is helping your photography develop.

      In many ways, we all come to grips with who we are and who we are not. Usually its easier to figure out what we don’t want to be, but as both you and I have experienced, what happens when you are two seemingly incompatible things like an artist and a football coach.

      My time practicing with Zen monks actually helped clear up most of that confusion. I knew from very early on that I wanted to be an artist. Everything else along the way, simply feeds that practice. I used to explain my background so it made a little more sense to people, now I just lay it all out. If they are confused…its ok. Eventually they get it. (hint: if you are pursuing a path that confuses people, there is a good chance you are headed in an interesting direction)

      From what I read in your note, it makes a lot of sense that you are interested in photography. Between the split life of a football coach and a psychologist, you must see human development at all levels, physical, emotional, and probably spiritual (for at least some of the kids). The only arena that will handle all of those topics is art. It is the great unifier of the human experience.

      Do you read any Walt Whitman? He has a line from Leaves of Grass where he says:
      “Do I contradict myself,
      Well then, I contradict myself.
      (I am large, I contain multitudes)”

      I wrote an entry on the site, if you want to give it a look:

      Whitman certainly had his own struggles about his identity, his sexuality and his loyalty to a nation that was crumbing under his feet. His perspective on our personal complexity is timeless. With any luck the photographs presented touch on some of the same ideas.

      There is a photographer Collier Schorr, who did a series on high school wrestlers you might want to check out. Its not the most amazing series, but I appreciate that she explores the aspects of youth that are usually discussed with a psychologist rather than a coach. Fortunately you see both sides.

      Have at it, be yourself…it will look different than you think and thats ok.

      Best-Adam Marelli

  4. Inspiring story you have there, Adam. And that ‘list’ of yours quite hilarious :)

  5. Hey Digitallink,

    Glad you enjoyed the series. And what can say, they mind of a 21 year old is a hardly formed mass of potential and stupidity.


  6. Very inspiring. You are a great writer also. I am at the point where I have decided to make a serious go at photography. I haven’t figured my exact focus yet but I do like taking pictures of old buildings. There are a lot here in Philly. I posted a bunch at Thanks for any feedback.

  7. Great piece of inspiring and emotional project. There is some kind of emotional attachment that I felt when I looked at the photos and the way you describe them makes them more emotional. I have read about you in other blogs as well and you are titled as one of the leading contemporary street photographers who makes great use of compositions and I can see that as well. Though I am not totally sure if I have I have even understood the compositions properly but I do get that feeling in your photo. Hope to see other inspiring projects like this.

    • Hi Dipu,

      Thank you for the kind words…construction is something that I hold near and dear to me. And sometimes the stories need to be told besides the pictures, not just in them, so people can understand where the pictures came from.

      More projects in the works.


  8. Dear friend
    This post is so helpful,it give me much help,thank you!

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