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Camilo José Vergara’s archive consists of more than 14,000 photographic slides of urban areas across the United States. For more than three decades, Camilo José Vergara has photographed the contemporary urban landscape, often returning to photograph the same buildings at different times. Drawn to the poorer sections of the city, where revitalization happens at a slower pace, his photographs document both the continual decay of buildings, as well as successful revitalization projects. Concentrating on a variety of urban zones around the country—ranging from established East Coast cities like Camden, New Jersey and New York City’s Harlem, the rust belt cities of the Mid-West, to Los Angeles’s Skid Row — the depth, breadth and social significance of Vergara’s photographs provide unmatched visual documentation over time of inner-city neighborhoods.
Documentation of urban ghettos, their poverty and segregation, is a strength of the collection. The photographs include views of interior and exterior views of residential buildings, office buildings, factories, schools, libraries, abandoned buildings, storefront churches, early motels, empty lots, graffiti, public service billboards, streets, parks and new development, such as big box retailers and suburban construction designs in inner cities. The collection can be used to compare regional differences and similarities between cities.
Vergara has described his working process: “I use photography as a means of discovery, as a tool by which to clarify visions and to construct knowledge about a particular city or place. Pictures are the starting point in posing a question, adding a link with other images, or claiming new territory. I select places to document because they fit a geographical theme such as the major commercial avenue, or local drug strip, illustrate a characteristic aspect of the area, depict a site I have already photographed or simply because I find them moving. Photographs coupled with interviews of residents of a block, neighborhood, or building become the beginning of urban narratives, which help establish a place’s changing nature and identity.”
Mr. Vergara came to the US in the 1960s from Chile to study at Notre Dame University. He earned a Master’s degree in sociology from Columbia University. His interest in American cities stems from his studies, but also crosses several disciplines including photography, architecture, urban planning, historic preservation, as well as other areas of study.
Camilo José Vergara has published numerous books, including Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery (1989), The New American Ghetto (1995), American Ruins (1999), and Twin Towers Remembered (2001), Unexpected Chicagoland (2002), Subway Memories (2004), and How the Other Half Worships (2005). His photographs have been exhibited internationally including at the National Building Museum, Getty Research Institute, and Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. He was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (2002), which is commonly called the “Genius award.” The Library owns a group of more than eighty of his photographs of New York City’s Twin Towers, purchased shortly after the 2001 terrorist attack on that building.
Vergara’s website, Invincible Cities, is an interactive database comprising his photographs documenting Camden, New Jersey; Richmond, California; and New York’s Harlem. The images are keyed to maps, so researchers can easily navigate through the site by neighborhoods. The photographer chose to name his site “Invincible Cities” from a fragment of a poem by Walt Whitman that is chiseled into the side of Camden City Hall: “I dreamt I saw a city invincible.” Vergara states in the introduction to his website; “In a part of this effort to make social inequity visible and comprehensible, Invincible Cities brings ghettos into peoples homes. In this project Walt Whitman is a reassuring presence.”