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Helena Zinkham, Chief, Prints & Photographs Division
Michelle Smiley, Assistant Curator, Prints & Photographs Division
Last Updated: November 16, 2022
Camilo José Vergara is a man of exceptional talent, who combines the worlds of documentary and artistic photography to record history as it happens. He uses photography to “track time” and makes us look closely at how the urban decay of America's inner cities changes in small and large ways. He also documents the creativity of the people who reside in the ruined neighborhoods as they indicate what matters to them by creating powerful murals and by adapting old buildings to new purposes.
For his website called Invincible Cities, Vergara wrote, “I use photographs as a means of discovery, as a tool with which to clarify visions and construct knowledge about a particular place, or city. … A set of photographs coupled with interviews from a block, neighborhood or a building became the starting point for developing stories that I hope will help establish a place's changing identity. My work asks basic questions: what was this place in the past, who uses it now, and what are its current prospects? Using insights from a variety of disciplines such as ethnography, history, and archeology, I uncover patterns shaping the nation's poorest and most segregated postindustrial cities.”
When Vergara first picked up a camera in the early 1970s, he focused on the people who lived in the physically ruined neighborhoods. About this early series, now called Old New York, he later said “the images of the physical communities in which people live often better reveal the choices made by residents and city officials over the long haul.” The collection includes many of the remarkable time-lapse sequences that highlight single locations in Harlem and the Bronx in New York City; Camden and Newark in New Jersey; Chicago, Illinois; Gary, Indiana; Detroit, Michigan; and Los Angeles, California. Our attention is also drawn to the dynamic murals and graphics that came and went in many cities. Other special themes include the presence of churches and religion and the dramatic desolation and beauty of an almost-empty city at night.
In 2013, Vergara selected the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, to be the permanent home for his photographic archive. Our previous acquisitions of Vergara's work were the series “Silent Cities” (documenting cemeteries across the United States, 1976-1989) and “Twin Towers Remembered” (the World Trade Center in New York City, 1970-2001). More than 18,000 photographs have already been transferred to the Library, and the full archive is expected to offer 20,000 images, spanning the 1970s through the 2020s.