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Awards & Honors: 2012 National Humanities Medalist

Camilo José Vergara

Camilo José Vergara is a man with a mission. For over four decades he has been photographing the poorest neighborhoods in several of America’s poorest cities, as well as Harlem, the anomalous poor neighborhood in a rich city. The accretion of his images over the years makes 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. Only a man with Vergara’s sense of mission would have the patience to return again and again to document the same sites, to record their evolution in the minutest particularity.

125th Street is Harlem’s main thoroughfare, the site of the famous Apollo Theater. 65 East 125th Street, located between Madison and Park Avenues, is a building typical of the commercial real estate in the area. Vergara began shooting this unprepossessing building in 1977; his first picture shows two sets of red double doors with free-form shapes left clear on the painted windows, several cocktail glasses painted on the façade, and a sign identifying it as the Purple Manor. By 1980, the doors were painted black and white, and three of the four windows were obstructed with curtains. A second picture from 1980 shows the doors on the right are now red and white, and the door on the left leads to a restaurant advertising “Fish-n-Chips $2.25.” In 1981, the address is the site of a discount variety store. In 1983, it reverted to fish and chips, and successively became a smoke shop, a unisex boutique, a beauty shop, a clothing store, a Sleepy’s Mattress Store, and, in the final 2009 picture that ends the sequence of twenty-six images, it is for rent.

Vergara is meticulous in his work as a documentarian. He positioned himself in the exact same spot for each of the pictures of 65 East 125th Street, and used equivalent cameras and lenses so the images can be compared apples to apples. This stop-time series of one specific location is valuable in understanding the changes undergone by the larger community and, coupled with similar series of other locations, makes possible a multidimensional record of the neighborhood.

Marilyn Satin Kushner, the curator of photographs at the New-York Historical Society, has presented several popular exhibitions of Vergara’s work, including “The Dream Continues: Photographs of Martin Luther King Murals.” The series documented murals by folk artists on buildings in Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, New York, Bridgeport, and elsewhere. The slain civil rights leader is painted variously with Pancho Villa, with Frederick Douglass, with Michael Jackson, with Jesus and the Virgin Mary, with Duke Ellington, and in many different aspects. The photographs show the murals changing, decaying, and disappearing as Vergara returned to them again and again. Kushner cites Vergara’s passion and commitment, and says, “He will venture anywhere to get the image he wants.”

Camilo José Vergara was born in 1944 in Santiago, Chile, into a wealthy family. By the time he was fifteen, economic reverses had reduced them to poverty, and he went to live with relatives. He managed to get to the United States, and earned a BA in sociology at the University of Notre Dame in 1968 and an MA in the same discipline at Columbia University in 1977. His personal experience with need made it easy for him to identify with the poor, and his education gave him the intellectual tools to structure his projects. He says, “I saw my mission as compiling a record of the destruction and violence done to New York at the height of America’s urban crisis.”

Besides New York, Vergara has undertaken projects in Richmond, California; Camden, New Jersey; Gary, Indiana; Los Angeles; Chicago; Detroit; and fourteen other cities. His work has been exhibited at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.; the Municipal Art Society in New York; the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum, also in New York; the Museum of the City of New York; and elsewhere, as well as having been published in seven books. In 2002, he won a MacArthur Foundation grant. But, in many ways, the culmination of his career is the interactive website Invincible Cities.

Invincible Cities (invinciblecities.camden.rutgers.edu/intro. html), supported by Rutgers University and the Ford Foundation, lets online browsers access Vergara’s pictures of Harlem, Richmond, and Camden. Coded links on maps of the cities bring up street views, building views, panoramic and interior views, details, and artifacts. Timelines let you pick the period you want to visit. Essays provide background data, and viewers can add comments to individual images. Vergara writes in his summary of the project, “I use photographs as a means of discovery.” Now others can share his adventure.

— by William Meyers

William Meyers writes on photography for the Wall Street JournalCommentary Magazine, the Weekly Standard, and elsewhere.