Clicks amid the mayhem

Photographer’s work documents I-93 bridge project

Stephen SetteDucati takes a picture under the Mystic River Crossing northbound section of Interstate 93 last month as the bridge is torn down. Stephen SetteDucati takes a picture under the Mystic River Crossing northbound section of Interstate 93 last month as the bridge is torn down. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / August 14, 2011

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MEDFORD - The scene suggests Dante’s “Inferno’’ rewritten by a small boy.

Under the full moon, torches throw off torrents of sparks, while shattered cement and twisted metal crash to the ground in clouds of dust. More than a dozen big yellow excavators move at once in a brutal ballet. It’s a sandbox dream, except these machines are full-sized, not toys. Each one has a special attachment at the end of its bent arm, for cutting, jackhammering, or biting I-beams in two. The noise is deafening: grinding, smashing, and pounding, pounding, pounding. The ground shakes often.

This is the demolition phase of the state’s Fast 14 Interstate 93 bridge replacement project. And Stephen SetteDucati is right in the middle of it with his camera.

“This is something I never, ever get bored of, even if I see it a thousand times,’’ SetteDucati says, grinning as a huge piece of equipment rumbles past with a twisted girder clenched in its iron claw.

Between 9 p.m. and midnight on this Friday in July - just three hours - crews mostly demolish both spans carrying I-93 southbound over the Salem Street rotary in Medford. During the rest of the weekend, both will be replaced, and SetteDucati will be there to photograph it. It’s a process repeated up and down this stretch of highway all summer, as 14 bridges are replaced. The final bridge deck replacement - of the span carrying I-93 over Route 16 in Medford - will be completed by the end of this weekend.

Some nearby streets are closed off. State and local police keep the few spectators outside temporary fences. Hard hats and bright safety vests are mandatory, earplugs advisable. But SetteDucati moves comfortably through the seemingly chaotic scene, snapping away with his top-of-the-line Canon EOS 5D digital camera and checking other cameras mounted on tripods and even the vehicles themselves to shoot time-lapse montages and video. The machines’ drivers wave and shout to him as they pass.

“I’ve been around these guys a lot and I know how they work, and they look out for me,’’ he said. “I make sure they see me, and they give that little wave, that they know I’m here.’’

The companies that hire him appreciate how he has become “embedded into the crews and operators of the equipment we employ so when he comes to work he is part of the gang not a ‘picture guy’ in the way of busy people,’’ Peter T. White, president of J.F. White Contracting Co. of Framingham, said via e-mail. “Once people see his work, they more readily welcome him on site and hope he maybe captures their job just right like he has done several times for J.F. White in the past.’’

SetteDucati grew up outside Albany, N.Y., and came to the Boston area to study architecture and design at Wentworth Institute of Technology. He was working as an architectural photographer by day in the early 1990s when he began to spend nights taking his own photos of the Big Dig. He became, by his own account, more and more obsessed as the project grew, resulting in the publication of “The Big Dig at Night,’’ a book featuring his photos and text by Dan McNichol.

Just one problem. The first book signing at the Barnes & Noble in Downtown Crossing was on Sept. 12, 2001.

“The people who came in were just like zombies,’’ SetteDucati said. “They said, ‘Where were these photos taken?’ ‘The Big Dig.’ ‘They look just like Ground Zero, you should take them down.’ ’’

With the intense focus on security after 9/11, SetteDucati needed to make connections with the construction companies to be able to work in and near the Big Dig and other projects. Eventually he began working for them, including J.F. White, W.L. French Excavating Corp., and Wakefield-based Testa Corp. One of his assignments for Testa was to shoot some of its work at Ground Zero in New York City.

He makes a permanent artistic record of each company’s work in stills and on video, and not just pretty shots of the finished product. He’s shooting the Fast 14 for White, which runs the project as a joint venture with Kiewit Corp., although on this night, Testa is doing the demolition work as subcontractor.

“Steve’s mission is to capture our work and provide lasting memories and images of what it was that day, that moment,’’ White wrote. “The straining arm of a dock-builder’s arm, an ironworker guiding 200,000 pounds of steel and concrete to within an eighth of an inch, a mega-crane resting between picks, a demolition shear tool biting bridge beams in two as if it’s a kill - these are moments never precisely to recur again in that spot, and that to me makes photos in and of themselves valuable.’’

SetteDucati’s work is used in bid packages, for promotional purposes, or simply to hang in company offices. One of his first jobs for White was providing an image to fill a wall in a stairwell at the company’s headquarters.

In addition to the Fast14 project, he has also been keeping tabs on the Chelsea Street Bridge project over Chelsea Creek between East Boston and Chelsea. And he’s been traveling to Missouri to document the demolition of a huge Chrysler plant outside St. Louis for Detroit-based MCM Management Corp. There are many other projects in his portfolio.(His work is on display at

This summer SetteDucati was also elected president of the Commercial Industrial Photographers of New England. He said he hopes to expand membership by bringing more of his fellow industrial shooters into the fold. Single, he lives in Worcester with a bull terrier named Strut.

In Medford, surprisingly few neighbors turn out to stand behind the fence and watch the demolition.

“I could stand here all night and watch,’’ said Sandy Gale. “It’s so cool.’’

“I like all the equipment,’’ said Michael DiStasio, 10, whose father brought him out to watch.

As SetteDucati walks around the Medford site near midnight, it’s easy to see the pure joy on his face as Testa’s yellow machines do their work. He said he thinks he knows when he got hooked.

“When I was a young boy, around 10 years old - my grandfather out in Ohio was having his farm strip-mined for coal, and there were these huge machines everywhere. And on Sundays when they weren’t working, my father would take me down to the pit,’’ SetteDucati said.

The attractions included the Gem of Egypt, a steam shovel with a bucket large enough to fit six full-size SUVs in it and tracks 10 feet tall, he said.

“I remember taking a drive with my father and grandfather to go see this in the middle of the night,’’ SetteDucati said. “It’s plain as day, I can see it in my mind, when we were going up this little mountain road and turned a corner, and I looked down in the valley and there were all these lights and this massive, massive machine just digging one scoop at a time of coal out of the earth. Whether I’ve been trying to recreate that vision for the past 35 years - perhaps that’s what it is. Night photography has always been my thing.’’

Joel Brown can be reached at

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