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Camilo José Vergara Photographs: Tracking Time to Document America's Post-Industrial Cities

Photographer's Statement

As MIT Professor Anne Whiston Spirn has said of photography, it "can be a way of thinking about landscape, a means to read a landscape, to discover and display processes and interactions, and to map out the structure of ideas." As a medium of inquiry, photography is, ultimately, “a disciplined way of seeing.”

Children play and sit on the stoops of a bricked-up and graffitied building as an older woman walks by.
Camilo J. Vergara, photographer. Lower East Side, NYC. 1977. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

For more than four decades I have devoted myself to photographing and systematically documenting the poorest and most segregated communities in urban America. My focus is on established East Coast cities such as New York, Newark and Camden; rust belt cities of the Midwest like Detroit and Chicago; and such West Coast cities as Los Angeles and Richmond, California.

I began my documentation in the tradition of such masters as Helen Levitt, Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson, for all of whom the human figure was integral to their work. But increasingly, I became drawn to the urban fabric of America's poor inner cities — to the buildings that composed it and the life and culture embedded in its structures and streets.

Not wanting to limit the scope of my documentation to places and scenes that captured my interest merely because they resonated with my personality, I have struggled to make as complete and objective a portrait of America's inner cities as I could. Thus, I developed a method to document entire neighborhoods and then to return year after year to re-photograph the same places over time and from different heights, blanketing entire communities with images. Along the way I became a historically conscious documentarian, an archivist of decline, a photographer of walls, buildings and city blocks.

Bricks, signs, trees and sidewalks have spoken to me the most truthfully and eloquently about urban reality. For me, a people’s past, including their accomplishments, aspirations and failures, are reflected less in the faces, postures and clothing of those who live in these neighborhoods than in the material, built environment in which they move and that they modify over time. Photographs taken from different levels and angles, with perspective-corrected lenses, form a dense web of images, a visual record of these neighborhoods over years and even decades. I write down observations, interview residents and scholars, and make comparisons with similar photographs I have taken in other cities.

Two camping tents along with discarded office furniture are erected on either side of a tree on a Los Angeles sidewalk.
Camilo J. Vergara, photographer. 519 Gladys Ave., Los Angeles. 2016. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Studying my growing archive, I discover fragments of stories and urban themes in need of definition and further exploration. Some areas decline as longtime businesses give way to empty storefronts, graffiti and garbage, while others gentrify, with corporate chain stores replacing local mom-and-pop enterprises. I capture the ever-vital street life of neighborhoods, from stoop gatherings and parades to murals memorializing drug dealers, rappers and great leaders who are especially admired in such neighborhoods. I also look for the new shapes of old businesses, of emerging new ones and of new uses for old places. Wishing to keep the documentation open, I include places such as empty lots, which as segments of a temporal sequence are often especially revealing.

After 2000 my documentation entered a new phase. I began to do online searches of words, themes and addresses. With a simple Google search for a particular location, I was able to find newspaper and magazine articles, religious pamphlets, student papers and announcements for conferences and political meetings, all of which enriched the content of my research and prompted me to ask fresh questions and take new photographs. I discovered information about people who lived in the locations I photographed, read about events such as crimes, fires and stores and institutions coming to or abandoning neighborhoods, and learned about historical events that had taken place nearby. After the appearance of Google Maps (2005) and Google Street View (2007), these too became important research tools, allowing me to revisit the locations of my photographs and to go beyond the frames of the images to explore the streets around them. Whenever in doubt about the location of an image, I search for the correct address with Google Satellite or Street View.

I see photography as a medium that spurs continuous inquiry and thus leads to greater understanding of the spirit of a place. I think of my images as bricks that, when placed in context with each other, reveal shapes and meanings within these often neglected urban communities. Through photography, I have become a builder of virtual cities.

My hope is that my long-term records will become part of our collective urban memory.

Overgrown lawns, empty lots, and graffitied buildings stand along a reflective, wet street after a storm.
Camilo J. Vergara, photographer. View east along East Palmer towards Chene, Detroit. 2012. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
All of the photos in this guide are from the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. Camilo J. Vergara's photographs are used by permission of the photographer. For information on permissions and credit line, see the Camilo José Vergara Rights and Restrictions information page