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Camilo José Vergara Photographs: Tracking Time to Document America's Post-Industrial Cities

Background and Scope

Former Hollingshead Chemical, Camden. Photo by Camilo José Vergara, 2004
Former Hollingshead Chemical, Camden. Photo by Camilo José Vergara, 2004

Camilo José Vergara is a man of exceptional talent, who combines the worlds of documentary and artistic photography to record history as it happens.  He uses photography to “track time” and makes us look closely at how the urban decay of America’s inner cities changes in small and large ways. He also documents the creativity of the people who reside in the ruined neighborhoods as they indicate what matters to them by creating powerful murals and by adapting old buildings to new purposes.

For his website called Invincible Cities, Vergara wrote, “I use photographs as a means of discovery, as a tool with which to clarify visions and construct knowledge about a particular place, or city. … A set of photographs coupled with interviews from a block, neighborhood or a building became the starting point for developing stories that I hope will help establish a place's changing identity. My work asks basic questions: what was this place in the past, who uses it now, and what are its current prospects? Using insights from a variety of disciplines such as ethnography, history, and archeology, I uncover patterns shaping the nation's poorest and most segregated postindustrial cities.”

When Vergara first picked up a camera in the early 1970s, he focused on the people who lived in the physically ruined neighborhoods. About this early series, now called Old New York, he later said “the images of the physical communities in which people live often better reveal the choices made by residents and city officials over the long haul.”  The collection includes many of the remarkable time-lapse sequences that highlight single locations in Harlem and the Bronx in New York City; Camden and Newark in New Jersey; Chicago, Illinois; Gary, Indiana; Detroit, Michigan; and Los Angeles, California.  Our attention is also drawn to the dynamic murals and graphics that came and went in many cities. Other special themes include the presence of churches and religion and the dramatic desolation and beauty of an almost-empty city at night.

In 2013, Vergara selected the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, to be the permanent home for his photographic archive. Our previous acquisitions of Vergara’s work were the series “Silent Cities” (documenting cemeteries across the United States, 1976-1989) and “Twin Towers Remembered” (the World Trade Center in New York City, 1970-2001). More than 5,000 photographs have already been transferred to the Library, and the full archive is expected to offer 10,000 images, spanning the 1970s through the 2010s.

[ View all images currently online ]

Image Sampler

(all photos © Camilo José Vergara)

Time Lapse Series

  • Excerpt from Los Angeles, 10828 S. Avalon Blvd.: [ view all ]

More Time Lapse Series

  • Harlem, New York. 65 E. 125th St. [view all]
  • Harlem, New York. E. 125th St. at Park Ave. [view all]
  • Bronx, New York. Vyse Ave. [view all]
  • Bronx, New York. 3344 Third Ave. [view all]
  • Bronx, New York. Prospect Ave. at E. 149th St. [view all]
  • Bronx, New York. Southern Blvd. between E. 149th St. and Avenue St. John [view all]
  • Bronx, New York. 487 Willis Ave. [view all]
  • Camden, New Jersey. 1037 Louis St[view all]
  • Camden, New Jersey. 309-311 Mechanic St.  [view all]
  • Camden, New Jersey. 919 S. 9th St.  [view all]
  • Camden, New Jersey.  Fern St. [view all]
  • Camden, New Jersey. Former Camden Free Public Library [view all]
  • Camden, New Jersey. View north from Elm St.  [view all]
  • Newark, New Jersey. 15th Ave. at 7th St. [view all]
  • Newark, New Jersey. New at Newark Streets [view all]
  • Chicago, Illinois. 4344 W. Madison St. [view all]
  • Chicago, Illinois. 1117 N. Cleveland St. [view all]
  • Chicago, Illinois. View northeast from S. Federal [view all]
  • Detroit, Michigan. Ransom Gillis Mansion, 205 Alfred St. [view all]
  • Detroit, Michigan. Packard Plant, E. Grand Blvd. [view all]
  • Los Angeles, California. 10828 S. Avalon Blvd. [view all]
  • Los Angeles, California. 7316 Broadway [view all]
  • Los Angeles, California. 2102 S. Central Ave. [view all]
  • Los Angeles, California. Alley parallel to Soto [view all]
  • Los Angeles, California. 3466 2nd Ave. [view all]
  • Los Angeles, California. 150 East 23rd St.  [view all]

Other Subjects

Old New York City [ view all ]

On the way to Harlem, 1970
On the way to Harlem, 1970.

Los Angeles--Skid Row [ view all ]

Towne Ave. bet[ween] 4th and 5th Sts., LA, 2006
Towne Ave. bet[ween] 4th and 5th Sts., LA, 2006

Detroit at Night [ view all ]

Hollywood Coney Island, Gratiot Ave. at Harper, Detroit, 2013
Hollywood Coney Island, Gratiot Ave. at Harper, Detroit, 2013

World Trade Center, New York City [ view all ]

View from the Manhattan Bridge, Sept. 11, 2010, taken at 3 a.m., this photograph shows the Tribute in Light, an art installation near the World Trade Center site commemorating the 9/11 attacks
View from the Manhattan Bridge, Sept. 11, 2010, taken at 3 a.m., this photograph shows the Tribute in Light, an art installation near the World Trade Center site commemorating the 9/11 attacks

Religion [ view all ]

Way of Holiness Church, 5258 Indiana Avenue, Chicago, 2003
Way of Holiness Church, 5258 Indiana Avenue, Chicago, 2003

Graphics & Murals [ view all ]

AAA Party Store, E. Warren Ave. at Lenox, Detroit, 2009. [Mural by] Bennie White, 1993.
AAA Party Store, E. Warren Ave. at Lenox, Detroit, 2009. [Mural by] Bennie White, 1993.

Cemeteries [ view all ]

Calvary Cem[etery], Queens, N.Y., 1983 March.
Calvary Cem[etery], Queens, N.Y., 1983 March.

Barbershops & Hair [ view all ]

431 Malcolm X Blvd., Harlem, 2010
431 Malcolm X Blvd., Harlem, 2010

Photographer’s Statement

SOURCE: From the Inner Cities to the White House: Photographs by Camilo José Vergara - LightBox External link

As MIT Professor Anne Whiston Spirn has said of photography, it “can be a way of thinking about landscape, a means to read a landscape, to discover and display processes and interactions, and to map out the structure of ideas.” As a medium of inquiry, photography is, ultimately, “a disciplined way of seeing.”

For more than four decades I have devoted myself to photographing and systematically documenting the poorest and most segregated communities in urban America.  My focus is on established East Coast cities such as New York, Newark and Camden; rust belt cities of the Midwest like Detroit and Chicago; and such West Coast cities as Los Angeles and Richmond, California.

I began my documentation in the tradition of such masters as Helen Levitt, Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson, for all of whom the human figure was integral to their work. But increasingly, I became drawn to the urban fabric of America’s poor inner cities — to the buildings that composed it and the life and culture embedded in its structures and streets.

Not wanting to limit the scope of my documentation to places and scenes that captured my interest merely because they resonated with my personality, I have struggled to make as complete and objective a portrait of America’s inner cities as I could. Thus, I developed a method to document entire neighborhoods and then to return year after year to re-photograph the same places over time and from different heights, blanketing entire communities with images. Along the way I became a historically conscious documentarian, an archivist of decline, a photographer of walls, buildings and city blocks.

Bricks, signs, trees and sidewalks have spoken to me the most truthfully and eloquently about urban reality. For me, a people’s past, including their accomplishments, aspirations and failures, are reflected less in the faces, postures and clothing of those who live in these neighborhoods than in the material, built environment in which they move and that they modify over time. Photographs taken from different levels and angles, with perspective-corrected lenses, form a dense web of images, a visual record of these neighborhoods over years and even decades. I write down observations, interview residents and scholars, and make comparisons with similar photographs I have taken in other cities.

Studying my growing archive, I discover fragments of stories and urban themes in need of definition and further exploration. Some areas decline as longtime businesses give way to empty storefronts, graffiti and garbage, while others gentrify, with corporate chain stores replacing local mom-and-pop enterprises. I capture the ever-vital street life of neighborhoods, from stoop gatherings and parades to murals memorializing drug dealers, rappers and great leaders who are especially admired in such neighborhoods. I also look for the new shapes of old businesses, of emerging new ones and of new uses for old places. Wishing to keep the documentation open, I include places such as empty lots, which as segments of a temporal sequence are often especially revealing.

After 2000 my documentation entered a new phase. I began to do online searches of words, themes and addresses. With a simple Google search for a particular location, I was able to find newspaper and magazine articles, religious pamphlets, student papers and announcements for conferences and political meetings, all of which enriched the content of my research and prompted me to ask fresh questions and take new photographs. I discovered information about people who lived in the locations I photographed, read about events such as crimes, fires and stores and institutions coming to or abandoning neighborhoods, and learned about historical events that had taken place nearby. After the appearance of Google Maps (2005) and Google Street View (2007), these too became important research tools, allowing me to revisit the locations of my photographs and to go beyond the frames of the images to explore the streets around them. Whenever in doubt about the location of an image, I search for the correct address with Google Satellite or Street View.

I see photography as a medium that spurs continuous inquiry and thus leads to greater understanding of the spirit of a place.  I think of my images as bricks that, when placed in context with each other, reveal shapes and meanings within these often neglected urban communities. Through photography, I have become a builder of virtual cities.

My hope is that my long-term records will become part of our collective urban memory.

Rights Information

Permission to publish Camilo José Vergara's photographs must be requested from the photographer.  See the rights statement for Camilo José Vergara, which also supplies the requested credit line.

Related Resources


Jackson, Kenneth T. and Camilo José Vergara. Silent Cities: the Evolution of the American Cemetery. New York : Princeton Architectural Press, 1989. [view catalog record]

Vergara, Camilo José. American Ruins. New York: Monacelli Press, [1999]. [view catalog record]

-----. Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. [view catalog record]

-----. How the Other Half Worships. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005. [view catalog record]

-----. The New American Ghetto. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995. [view catalog record]

-----. Subway Memories. New York: Monacelli Press, 2004. [view catalog record]

-----. Tracking Time: Documenting America’s Post-Industrial Cities. Braunschweig, Germany: Museum für Photographie, Braunschweig, 2014. [not yet in Library of Congress collections]

-----. Twin Towers Remembered. New York : Princeton Architectural Press; Washington, D.C.: National Building Museum, 2001. [view catalog record]

------ and Timothy J. Samuelson. Unexpected Chicagoland. New York: New Press, 2001. [view catalog record]

Web Sites

Invincible Cities External link

Museum of the Street External link

Vergara, Camilo José. Tracking Time External link

Wikipedia, "Camilo José Vergara," External link
Compiled by: Helena Zinkham, Chief, Prints & Photographs Division, 2019.
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