Camilo José Vergara
Vergara has been compared to Jacob Riis for his photographic documentation of American slums and decaying urban environments. Beginning in the 1980s, Vergara applied the technique of rephotography to a series of American cities, photographing the same buildings and neighborhoods from the exact vantage point at regular intervals over many years to capture changes over time. Trained as a sociologist with a specialty in urbanism, Vergara turned to his systematic documentation at a moment of extraordinary urban stress, and he chose locales where that stress seemed highest: the housing projects of Chicago; the South Bronx of New York City; Camden, New Jersey; and Detroit, Michigan, among others.
Vergara began as a humanistic New York street photographer in the early '70s, when he moved to the city. This work changed significantly in the middle 1970s, when graduate work in sociology at Columbia University increasingly sensitized him to the complexities of environmental influences on social behavior. The advent of Kodachrome 64 film in 1974 alerted Vergara to the possibilities of permanent color photographic records of changing urban landscapes and their features. He began at that time to work systematically, using techniques adapted from sociological methodologies; traveling from one subway stop to the next, he would emerge onto the street and then photograph the surrounding blocks, fanning steadily outward. By 1977, he had come upon a rough approximation of his lifelong working method, returning to the same locales over time to photograph changes in the makeup of the communities in question.
With more than a decade of photographs to document the extraordinary phenomena of de-urbanization (including the conversion of buildings from one function to a second, then a third, before their abandonment, and the process by which nature recolonized long-urban areas), Vergara published The New American Ghetto with Rutgers University Press, to wide critical acclaim, from sociological and photographic critics alike. He received the Robert E. Park Award of the American Sociological Association for The New American Ghetto in 1997. His photographic projects, undertaken at a time when documentary photography was in a state of decline, are credited with catalyzing a resurgence of that form of humanistic, reform-directed, socially committed photography.
The rephotographic method, with its rigorous demands for systematic return, exact replication of vantage point, angle of view, and lens choice, had emerged originally out of the need for scientific evidence of change over time in ecological niches. As a photographer, however, Vergara's work was never rigid; while moving into and out of neighborhoods and areas to make his return photographs, Vergara made other pictures—of residents, of smaller details, nearly all in color. Beginning with The New American Ghetto, Vergara increasingly interwove these photographs, along with quotes from outside writers, fragments of comments by citizen-dwellers in the cityscapes he developed, and his own writing. Vergara's work was the subject of a 1999 exhibit at the National Building Museum, "El Nuevo Mundo: The Landscape of Latino Los Angeles." The exhibit was shown later in 1999 at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution. "The New American Ghetto", an earlier exhibition, opened at the National Building Museum and was later shown at The Municipal Arts Society in New York City. After the publication of his second major work, American Ruins, Vergara's reputation was fully established; he won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2002 and served as a fellow at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH) at Rutgers University in 2003/2004.
The advent of sophisticated internet combinations of mapping, visual archiving, and hyperlinking have enabled Vergara to present his work in ways that can combine both the vertical (change over time) and the horizontal (change across space) and link the visual images to texts and databases. Since 2004, Vergara's main work has been conveyed in a website called "Invincible Cities" in addition to a continuing series of exhibitions, books, and magazine projects, including a collection of pictures of Chicago's public housing for the new literary magazine Granta's Fall, 2009 issue. Slate magazine has also commissioned him to produce "mines" of his work—collections that feature topics or themes, from GM automobiles to distant traces of the World Trade Towers.
Vergara's thinking as an urban sociologist has never been orthodox. In 1995, Vergara made a controversial proposal that 12 square blocks of downtown Detroit be declared a "skyscraper ruins park," an "American acropolis," for the preservation and study of the deteriorating and empty skyscrapers. "We could transform the nearly 100 troubled buildings into a grand national historic park of play and wonder, an urban Monument Valley.... Midwestern prairie would be allowed to invade from the north. Trees, vines, and wildflowers would grow on roofs and out of windows; goats and wild animals—squirrels, possum, bats, owls, ravens, snakes and insects—would live in the empty behemoths, adding their calls, hoots and screeches to the smell of rotten leaves and animal droppings." (Metropolis, April 1995). Vergara's proposal ran squarely against the optimistic pronouncements of Detroit's rebuilding by politicians and boosters and resulted in a deluge of protest.
Vergara received a B.A. (1968) in sociology from the University of Notre Dame and an M.A. (1977) in sociology from Columbia University, where he also completed the course work for his Ph.D. (not yet awarded). His work has been published in seven books:
- 1989, Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery. ISBN 0-910413-22-3
- 1995, New American Ghetto. ISBN 0-8135-2209-9
- 1999, American Ruins. ISBN 1-58093-056-5
- 2001, Twin Towers Remembered. ISBN 1-56898-351-4
- 2001, Unexpected Chicagoland. ISBN 1-56584-701-6
- 2004, Subway Memories. ISBN 1-58093-146-4
- 2005, How the Other Half Worships. ISBN 0-8135-3682-0
 Notes and references
- Blurbs for Vergara's "How the Other Half Worships"
- some examples of the early street work can be found in a Slate series, "The Harlem That Was"
- Peter B. Hales,“Landscape and Documentary: Questions of Rephotography,” Afterimage, Summer, 1987, pp. 10–14
- Granta 108, Fall, 2009
- "Berlin Prize Fellow, Class of Spring 2010". American Academy in Berlin. Retrieved March 14, 2012.
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