Chilean photographer and sociologist Camilo José Vergara (born 1944) documents urban decay, using repeated photography to show how the passage of time changes cities. Raised in a family that moved from affluence to poverty, Vergara became fascinated by the way urban areas evolve over time. Consequently, he has documented the decline of neighborhoods in major U.S. cities such as New York, Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles. In 2012 he received the National Humanities Medal for his insightful work.
Camilo José Vergara was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1944, and grew up in Rengo, a small town about 73 miles to the south. “The accumulated wealth of generations was visible in my early childhood in the form of beautiful houses, expensive cars, elegant furniture, and precious jewelry, which I admired and assumed would be ours forever,” Vergara wrote in his 1995 book The New American Ghetto. After his father, an alcoholic, squandered the family's assets, they were left in poverty, which strongly influenced him during his teenage years.
At age 21, Vergara came to the United States as a student, and in 1968 he was awarded a bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of Notre Dame. During his college studies, he encountered a vividly written article in Time magazine that focused on Gary, Indiana, a troubled industrialized city. While visiting Gary, which was once the main provider of steel to much of the United States, Vergara was inspired with an unique viewpoint as he saw the abandoned steel mills, docks, and run-down neighborhoods that were left after mills were automated and jobs went overseas. It was this unique viewpoint that has defined his work since.
His early experience with poverty also inspired Vergara with an interest in and compassion for the American working class, whose problems have been linked to the decline of major industrial cities. Vergara moved to New York City in 1968, worked in an office job, and explored an interest in street photography. His early photographs, shot in Harlem, New York City's storied black neighborhood, documented city residents as they lived, including children playing and a wedding party in front of a church. “In the ghetto I saw the equivalent of houses I could have lived in, and I examined them almost as part of my own life,” he wrote in The New American Ghetto.
In 1977, the same year he completed his master's degree in sociology at Columbia University, Vergara began a new project, photographing buildings in New York City, especially Harlem. He would return and photograph the same building or street corner in successive years to show how the urban landscape was changing. On visits to some neighborhoods, Vergara noticed that buildings he had seen a month earlier were now demolished, and he sensed a story within this passage of time that he could only tell visually, through photography. “I feel that a people's past, including their accomplishments, aspirations and failures, are reflected less in [their] faces … than in the material, built environment in which they move and modify over time,” he wrote in an introduction to his photography project, a collection of city-specific photo collections created over 30 years and now viewable online as Camilo José Vergara: Tracking Time.
Harlem's East 125th Street may be Vergara's bestknown subject. In 1977, for instance, he photographed the exterior of the Purple Manor, a nightclub on East 125th with a lavender façade and hourglass-shaped windows. In 1980, he returned to photograph the same address and found the former nightclub divided into two storefronts, one blue and one red. The storefronts kept changing over the next three decades, and Vergara returned to record these changes. One housed a fish-and-chips restaurant, then a furniture store, then a beauty salon. The other transformed from a discount variety store to a smoke shop. Both closed in the 1990s, were reunited as a mattress showroom, and then retrofitted and converted into apartments for the disabled. “Over the span of eight images we see many changes, but we aren't asked to feel good or bad about them,” wrote Holland Cotter in the New York Times, reviewing a component of Tracking Time, exhibited as the show Harlem: 1970-2009. “We're meant to think: Look what life does.”
Over the years, Vergara has not only embraced his fascination with ruins, he has deepened it by exploring connections in literature. He counts Edgar Allan Poe, the 19th-century American writer notable for his preoccupation with death and decay, as an influence. “I am drawn to the themes of exile, lost wars, sickness, failure, decay, and death,” he wrote in his book American Ruins. Art critics have noted his somber embrace of absence. “Far from being a brash photographic adventurer, he is more like a ghost haunting ghosts,” wrote Cotter in the New York Times.
Sometimes, his preoccupations have led critics to question Vergara's vision. For instance, when new construction, such as fast-food restaurants or apartment complexes, comes to Harlem, Vergara tends to view it as gentrification and the destruction of older, aesthetically pleasing architecture. Others celebrate it as progress and a sign of prosperity.
In July of 1990, Vergara returned to his hometown of Rengo, Chile, an experience that deepened the resonance of his study of ruins. Expecting to see his childhood home, he instead found it gone, along with the trees that had surrounded it. “It was profoundly disturbing, standing there facing only a shallow brook,” he wrote in The New American Ghetto. “Now I understood better the feelings experienced by suburbanites who visit their old urban neighborhoods, only to find them unrecognizable.”
From New York City, Vergara began documenting poor neighborhoods in New Jersey cities such as Newark and Camden, as well as the industrialized “Rust Belt” cities Detroit, Gary, and Chicago, which were prosperous during the early 20th century. He also traveled west, to Los Angeles, where he chronicled the evolution of several urban neighborhood. As cities became more dangerous during the crack cocaine epidemic of the mid-1980s, Vergara began to visit urban neighborhood with local escorts, such as building superintendents and maintenance men. He grew especially fascinated with Detroit, a declining industrial city that experienced widespread abandonment. The city's downtown includes the nation's third-largest collection of skyscrapers from before the 1930s, behind only New York and Chicago. By the mid-1990s, several were vacant. Vergara began to focus more on shooting skyscrapers in Detroit and elsewhere, instead of documenting small structures in poor communities.
In 1995, Vergara provoked controversy by suggesting that part of Detroit's downtown be left as a ruins park. “I propose that as a tonic for our imagination, as a call for renewal, as a place within our national memory, a dozen city blocks of pre-Depression skyscrapers be stabilized and left standing as ruins: an American Acropolis,” Vergara wrote, as quoted by James Bennett in the New York Times. We could transform the nearly 100 troubled buildings into a grand national historic park of play and wonder.” This idea, which was apparently proposed in all seriousness, attracted widespread anger in Detroit, where businesspeople and civic leaders were looking for ways to revive the downtown and staunch the rapid exodus of residents fleeing the city. In the more than two decades since, some once-vacant Detroit skyscrapers, such as the Book Cadillac Hotel, have been renovated and reoccupied, although others remain vacant.
Vergara's continued fascination with Detroit's people and buildings has been shared by many who remember the city in its heyday. Writing in Time magazine in 2014, he expressed a shared wish and a shared experience. “Perhaps Detroit's neighborhoods will rise again,” he wrote. “That would be a cause for celebration. But I will always remember the nights, when gliding along the ruined streets of Motown I felt I was somewhere out of this world.”
Because Vergara's art gains power due to the passage of time, he often returns to the same locations many times, often standing in the same spot to capture a building. Viewing his role as being more than an artist, perhaps an archivist of decline, he continues to photograph such locations, even when the building is demolished and gives way to an empty lot. He supplements his photography with sociological critique, formulating questions by examining his photos, then interviewing academics and city residents.
In 2000, Vergara began to integrate Internet searches into his research. He used news articles, pamphlets, meetings, conferences, and academic papers to inform his work on the ground. When Google Maps and Google Street View were introduced, in 2005 and 2007 respectively, he used both to enhance his location-based research. He also built a website, titled Invincible Cities, which enhances his photographs of Harlem, Camden, and Richmond, California with digital information. On the website, hosted by Rutgers University, viewers can browse Vergara's photos from the same city in different time periods and explore street and building views as well as interiors of buildings. They can also read essays and details about the photographs.
Among Vergara's long-term photography projects were two New York City skyscrapers, the twin towers of the World Trade Center. He began photographing them in 1970, when they were under construction and surrounded by cranes. Over the years, he photographed the towers at different times of day and from different vantage points. He photographed them shortly before their collapse due to the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, and he returned to document the city's altered skyline and the rubble at ground level in the aftermath. An exhibition of his World Trade Center photos was staged in 2002 at the New York Historical Society.
Vergara's World Trade Center exhibition was on display in September of 2002, when he was named a recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, often known as the “genius grant.” Awarded for creative accomplishments in various fields, the grant—a $100,000 annual salary for five years—excited Vergara, whose work is more artistic than commercial. “I'm just out of breath, out of words,” he told Felicia R. Lee for the New York Times. “I have two kids in college. For the first time I can look at a year and say I have enough to get through the year.” He took the opportunity the MacArthur fellowship provided to expand his work photographing buildings to photographing buildings that build communities. In 2005 he published How the Other Half Worships, a photographic study of the churches of the urban poor.
In 2012, Vergara received the National Humanities Medal from the National Endowment for the Humanities. William Meyers, writing on the agency's website, called his work “an invaluable resource for those interested in understanding the course of urban blight that plagued the country in the second half of the twentieth century.” Over a decade before, in American Ruins, Vergara had written wistfully that he wished ruins in Detroit and beyond could be collected in a “Smithsonian of Decline.” His wish was not as far-fetched as he thought. In 2013, he was able to share his work with the nation by choosing the Library of Congress as the home of his permanent photo archive.
Vergara, Camilo José, American Ruins, Monacelli Press, 1999.
Vergara, Camilo José, The New American Ghetto, Rutgers University Press, 1995.
New York Times, December 10, 1995; December 14, 1995; September 25, 2002; October 11, 2004; May 28, 2009.
Time, April 28, 2014.
Washington Post, October 5, 2012.
Camilo José Vergara website, http://www.camilojosevergara.com/ (January 10, 2017).
Library of Congress website, http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/ (January 10, 2017), “Camilo José Vergara Photographs: Tracking Time to Document America's Post-Industrial Cities.”
National Endowment for the Humanities website, https://www.neh.gov/ (January 10, 2017), William Meyers, “Awards & Honors: 2012 National Humanities Medalist: Camilo José Vergara.” ❑