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For four decades, Camilo José Vergara has photographed select American cities, focusing on inner-city life that he considers “invisible” to large segments of America’s population. His thousands of images—made between 1970 and the present day—record the urban decay that blights neighborhoods in New York, Detroit, Newark, Camden, Chicago, and Los Angeles, but he also sees life and vibrancy—children playing (in rubble, at times), shop owners proudly posed in their stores, and community gardens. He also concentrates on the powerful murals created to express political views and to identify tastes in music and heroes.
As a trained sociologist, Vergara plots change by returning at regular intervals to photograph the same buildings, thus calling viewers’ attention to the economic fragility of inner-city businesses.
In his book Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto (2013) Vergara wrote that “Harlem was like a run-down version of Paris where life was lived on the streets . . . . I felt a people’s past—their accomplishments, failures and aspirations—were not reflected in their faces but in the material world in which they lived and which they helped to shape.”