Camilo José Vergara: When I first started photographing the urban environment I spent some time studying the work of Chilean-born photographer, Camilo José Vergara (1944). I hadn’t thought much about him lately until urban photographer Sean Posy posted a link to his work on Harlem on Facebook. As a side note, let me also add that Sean’s work has also inspired me to get out there with the camera.
Vergara is noted for photographic documentation of American slums and decaying buildings. He uses the technique of rephotography to serially photograph over the years the same buildings and neighborhoods from the exact same spot each time. In so doing he has captured the changes of time. His goal is to document via photography those cities in the greatest decline: South Bronx, Camden (NJ), Detroit, the housing projects of Chicago, among others. He is credited with bringing about a resurgence of reform-directed, socially committed photography. In The New American Ghetto Vergara shares combines his photographic work with his sociological ideas, often combining his photos with quotes from both social urbanists and the very residents he photographs.
His urban sociology often raises eyebrows. He, for example, suggested that 12 square blocks of downtown Detroit be declared a “skyscraper ruins park” for the study of urban decay. He also suggested that the Midwestern Prairie be allowed to invade and reclaim the park; one of his interests being how nature reclaims her land.
Vergara is often compared to Jacob Riis, an earlier urban documentary photographer (1849 – 1914) and journalist. More on Riis can wait for a subsequent post.