Camilo Jose Vergara: 30 Years Documenting the American Ghetto

The photographer's goal is to create a comprehensive and permanent record of America's inner-cities that allows visitors to experience the visual effect of decades of change.



If Camilo Jose Vergara wasn't so terrible at expressing himself through poetry, he might not have discovered his fluency in the language of visual images early on.

Newly arrived from his native Chile in 1965, he enrolled in the University of Notre Dame on a scholarship and signed up for a class designed to help foreign students improve their communication skills by reading and writing in different genres. "I guess poetry was not my medium," laughs Vergara, because the professor suggested that he try photography and lent him $170 to buy a used camera.

Wandering the outskirts of town with his Pentax Spotmatic, the sociology major zoomed in on the stunning contrast between Notre Dame's lush grassy expanses and "busloads of maids" en route to work in affluent homes, and the dilapidated houses and endless dirt lawns of surrounding neighborhoods. The sensibility of those early street pictures set the foundation for Vergara's 30-year-plus chronicle of urban decay -- and sometimes rehabilitation -- in 21 American cities including Harlem, the South Bronx, Newark, Camden, NJ, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Vergara's encyclopedic archive of the built environment -- burned out tenements, empty lots, ghostly factories, junkyards, graffiti, railroads, cemeteries and crumbling landmarks -- numbers more than 14,000 color slides and has yielded seven books including The New American Ghetto (1995), American Ruins (1999), Subway Memories (2004), and How the Other Half Worships (2005). Hundreds of images, too, have found a home on , a four-year-old interactive website sponsored by the Ford Foundation and Rutgers-Camden University, which documents the post-industrial decline of Richmond, CA, Camden, NJ and Harlem. "The premise behind all the work that I do is that 100 pictures are one hundred times more powerful than one picture. The more you track something, the deeper and more eloquently it speaks," says Vergara, a recipient of the 2002 "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation.

© Camilo José Vergara
Beginning in 1977, Vergara began photographing 65 East 125th Street in New York City's Harlem neighborhood. From top, the address as photographed in 1980, 2001 and 2007 illustrate both the city's revitalization and the loss of local color.

In the tradition of much-admired masters including Helen Levitt and Walker Evans, Vergara initially turned his eye to street photography; his earliest work in Harlem in 1970 portrayed men playing dominoes or old women in crumbling tenement hallways, but flesh-and-blood eventually gave way to brick-and-mortar. He began to see the work as derivative and began to feel, too, that the material world could more concretely tell the story of the people who live there. "Bricks, signs trees and buildings spoke more eloquently than people's faces," writes Vergara in the introduction to the Harlem portion of the Invincible Cities website . "The people's history was in the world in which they lived and which they helped to shape."

He also felt freed up from the "burden" of chasing down the singular image that would say it all. "The decisive moment goes against the long-term project," says Vergara. "You have someone walking around, nervously clutching a camera, clicking and thinking they can capture an essence that reveals the world, where all of the energies of the universe converge and that little 35mm camera can put it in a picture. That's just bunk."

He developed a systematic approach to preserving the evolution of these environments by returning repeatedly over the years to record specific locations, often from different angles and perspectives. One popular time-lapse sequence spanning 30 years shows 65 East 125th street in Harlem as it morphs from Purple Manor, a neighborhood club painted deep red with purple accents and decorated with hand-drawn champagne glasses, to a clothing boutique, a fish and chips eatery, a grocery store, and a host of other small businesses, until finally realizing its current, generic incarnation, a Sleepy's bedding store. The sequence illustrates both the city's revitalization and the loss of local color. "Once you create the structure, all you have to do is show up," he says.

Vergara maintains he was "hardwired" to connect with his subject. Born to wealth, he saw his family's fortune spiral downward as a young child. "We moved to smaller and smaller places over time." That indelible experience "made me look at this aspect of reality, the deteriorating material world."

Ironically, he says, he has found much beauty in desolation, but has received little financial or other support from the field of photography and museum curators. Instead, his work has been embraced largely by historical, architectural and design organizations and publications.

"Once photography at its best and most prestigious became art and the rewards went to photographer artists, the field became uninterested and unable to significantly contribute to the creation of a historical record, that is to the making of an inventory of our world and to illustrate how it changes," asserts Vergara, adding that the Internet is an ideal way to bypass traditional museums. "You can realize a larger world that can support a different kind of photography."

The Internet is especially well-suited to housing a multi-layered history of the ghettos' evolution. Advances in technology allow the designers to arrange images in complex ways: links take the viewer to a page that gives census data; click on a color-coded street map on the left side of the screen to pinpoint exact addresses of panoramic views, artifacts, architectural details, building interiors or street-level views. "These kinds of things were unimaginable when I started the project," he says.

Vergara's primary goal is to create a comprehensive and permanent record that allows visitors to experience the visual effect of decades of change. To that end, he is in the process of creating a website (and accompanying book) that will emulate the Invincible Cities model. Called "A Visual Encyclopedia for the American Ghetto," or VE, the site will be national in scope so that visitors can compare different parts of the country, and to help the viewer, as he writes in his proposal, "understand the nature and meaning of social and economic inequality, and connect in an immediate and direct way with these poor segregated communities."

"Maybe later," Vergara says, "it becomes art."