CNN Photos

The frontlines of American manufacturing

Photographer Ian Wagreich says the U.S. manufacturing sector is alive and well. For the past two years he has been making portraits of workers at dozens of factories and production plants across the country.

“They’re the unknown heroes of the American economy and industrial infrastructure that are all too often overlooked,” he said. “I wanted to put a face on blue-collar workers.”

After pursuing a career in photojournalism, Wagreich took a job as the chief photographer for the Chamber of Commerce in 2000.

His work led him to photograph business owners and CEOs, but he says he became just as curious about the assembly line workers and skilled laborers he came across.

So after nearly a decade of developing the concept and making contacts, he began an ongoing project titled “Blue: America at Work.”

Partly as a nod to the industrial photographers of the early 20th century, Wagreich opted to shoot on medium-format, black-and-white film. He spent hours processing the negatives by hand in the darkroom.

The slow, deliberate process lent itself to the subject matter.

“I see blue-collar work as so incredibly artistic, often beautiful,” he said. “It’s melodic, rhythmic, graphically stunning. And frankly, when I learn about the sacrifices people make, I find it oftentimes is heroic.”

He met people who said their families have worked in the same factory for generations. Some of the people he encountered were fresh out of college or technical school. Others had been working the night shift for two decades.

Most of them were proud of the work they do and honored to have their stories told, Wagreich said.

At a foundry in Michigan, he stood nearby as workers melted recycled steel in a massive furnace. He was mesmerized by the scene.

“You could hear this thing roaring from several blocks away as the electrodes ignited the metal into liquid,” he said. “It was exhilarating.”

Despite the country’s economic uncertainty, there has been a recent increase in manufacturing jobs.

An August report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated 532,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs have been created over the past two-and-a-half years. Since June 2009, production was up 19.8%.

Wagreich hopes his project conveys the story of the American blue-collar worker and inspires people to pursue manufacturing jobs that are often associated with a bygone era.

“I want people to look at these in 30 years and be surprised when they learn it was done in the second decade of the 21st century,” he said.

- Brett Roegiers, CNN