Camilo José Vergara

Throughout the early weeks of the course I have been looking for inspiration from the masters of photography and established contemporary artists and I am surprised to be getting so much pleasure from the research element of the course. It is an intriguing and strangely satisfying process to start with references in the books I have already acquired, or to search the internet, finding a lead and then pursuing that lead until you are reviewing work that fits with a theme you have in mind. This week, looking for contrasting images, I have found my way to Camilo José Vergara.

By “documenting the poorest and most segregated communities in urban America” Vegara has created a photographic archive that spans over four decades and, as such, his work has great historical significance charting the changes brought about about by boom and bust economies and the decline of industrial cities in the 20th Century. I found the descriptions of how he has worked to build this library and how he now develops it of particular interest at this point in my studies. On his website he is very open about his research techniques and how he has visually documented the changing face of American cities.

Perhaps unusually for an urban or street photographer he is less interested in photographing people and more interested in capturing a sense of place and documenting the effect that peoples’ successes and failures have had on their environment. In an article for Time LightBox, (July 2013), where he is a contributor, he says he started out following the traditions of Helen Levitt, Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson whose images have people as an integral component but he became increasingly drawn to capturing the infrastructure, the buildings and the streets of Amercian cities. This approach gives his images a very different feel to many other urban photographers.

You can trace the rise, decline and fall of communities by comparing photographs of the same streets and the same buildings over extended periods of time. The fact that people are often incidental or completely absent from his photographs makes them no less about the human condition. His photographs of graffiti might tell us more about the inner cities than an image of the artist. “Detroit is no Old Bones Detroit You Shall Live” is only one of many images of expressive graffiti that communicate a strong message.

His website provides many examples of his work and allows the viewer to trace the change in specific communities. Having worked for a New York based company for 10 years I am especially interested in his early photographs of the city in the 70s. Image after image of the collection on his site shows a city in desperate decline, of poverty in the shadow of wealth, of despair and hopelessness. He works in colour, often strong, dominant colours which is another deviation from the norm for street photographers, yet the old Ektrachrome images with their slightly faded and muted tones add to the sense of a time past. His compositions are strong with every detail adding to the story and reminds me that “Photoshopping” out the discarded Coke can might, over time, devalue the image not enhance it.

There is a series of photographs taken on Los Angeles Skid Row including many memorable images, with strong colours, clean shapes and powerful compositions but the images that resonate with me are those of shoes neatly lined up along the pavement outside a shelter made of cardboard or the obvious care that has been invested in building a home from plastic sheets and rubbish. It speaks of people down on their luck but maintaining some dignity, maintaining standards. My Grandmother who had seen much bad luck come her way between the wars would have understood these photographs.

But, there is also hope and regeneration in these collections. In his Detroit is no Old Bones Exhibition that ran between September 2012 and March 2013 at The National Building Museum in Washington DC it was possible to see both the decline and the rejuvenation of parts of Detroit. According to the New York Times this is city that lost half of its population between 1970 and 2010 in the wake of the decline of the American motor industry. This left 20% of the building lots in the city vacant but Vergara’s process of regularly photographing the same streets and plots shows how sites left empty by demolition have been purchased by small entrepreneurs who have amazingly established urban farms. This phoenix effect makes Vergara’s images even more compelling.

Mr. Vergara is firmly on my fast growing, but selective, list of photography heroes.

Sources:

Time LightBox, accessed 2013, lightbox.time.com

Camilo José Vergara, Tracking Time, accessed 2013, camilojosevergara.com

The National Building Museum, accessed 2013, www.nbm.org

New York Times, accessed 2013, www.nytimes.com/2011/03/23/us/23detroit.html

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