Every so often, images of abandoned buildings circulate cyberspace, populating blogs or other online outlets in the form of slideshows and photo series. Chances are that if you have come across such photography, that you have seen the work of Camilo Jose Vergara. The photographer and writer specializes in capturing ruins and settings in states of decay and has become known for revisiting sites and producing a chronology of their fate. In 2013, he received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama, being the first photographer to be awarded the medal.
Vergara is prolific. The 73-year-old from Santiago, Chile has produced seven books that document dereliction in Los Angeles, Chicago, Newark, Camden, New York, and Detroit. His work builds on that of Jacob Riis, a 19th-century documentarian who published the landmark book, How the Other Half Lives, in 1890. Times have indeed changed since then, however, and Vergara’s work remains relevant. “All of this comes from the idea that the real poor and segregated neighborhoods are different in every aspect,” he told me as we drank beers on the rooftop of his Morningside Heights apartment. “It’s the idea that you have separate Americas… what really fascinates me is the history of places that are in decline because everybody concentrates on the history of places that are moving up, but the other process is just as interesting. It involves people, people coping with their circumstances and its arresting visually too.”
Over the course of numerous decades, Vergara, a MacArthur Award winner in 2002, has revisited the aforementioned cities, capturing their evolving urban and suburban environments. His methodology is meticulous, returning to the exact same point time and time again to take the same photograph, while also speaking to the local residents. While he occasionally takes portraits of those that approach him, Vergara prefers to shoot buildings and streetscapes as they represent, in his eyes, a place more accurately. “You develop a relationship with the city,” he said. “You don’t declare that you’re going ‘steady’ with that city until you’re going to be back unless you have some assurance that you’re going to do it—it’s like having a girlfriend.”
So how do you do it? “You need the money to go there on a regular basis; you need somebody to put you up, or enough money to pay for a hotel; you need money to rent a car, and all of those things are expensive,” he explained. Detroit, in particular, became available to Vergara on a regular basis in 1991 when his brother-in-law purchased a building there that was only ever two-thirds occupied. All he needed, he proclaimed, was a mattress and he was set.
Before the internet, getting back to an exact location required lots of notetaking. Besides location, Vergara added, the same lens is required and the lighting needs to be similar, if not the same (so you have to be there at the same time of day). “And then sometimes it is rush hour and traffic is in the way, or you have you park your car in the middle of the street and stand up on the roof,” Vergara continued “I do that all the time! The car is running, I’m up on the roof, but I can get away quickly if I needed to.”
But sometimes this zealousness has its consequences. In Detroit, Vergara was once reminded of the city’s tensions. “One time a man showed me his gun, he didn’t point it at me, just showed it to me.” He laughed, apparently unphased by this experience. “I went to the police station and told them and they said, ‘What business do you have coming to this neighborhood?’ Apparently, I didn’t have the right to complain.”
Other dissenters of Vergara deride his (and his contemporaries’) work as socially irresponsible poverty porn. Vergara considers this an “absurd accusation.” His view is that derelict structures have permanency, history, “feed the imagination,” and sometimes, can be a device to propagate the development of their surroundings. “A problem folks who are interested in poverty and ruins deal with is that ruins tend to be very beautiful,” Vergara elaborated. “The most magnificent ruins are from buildings that were spectacular to begin with.”
“There is more than one way to look at my work,” he continued. “One way is to look at it, say ‘nice’ then forget about it. But then maybe other people want to find out more about what they are looking at. Those people would find what I am talking about—the context.” Vergara couples short essays and interviews with his work; he is a sociological documentarian more so than just a mere photographer. “The context I think adds interest and gives it relevance.”
As for carrying out his work, Google Maps, he said, is making things easier. “It has changed they way I work tremendously. Before I go back to reshoot a location, I look at my old photographs and think to myself, ‘What’s around this place?’ There is no way in the world I am going to photograph every building in Detroit so I use Google Streetview, using the time sequences they offer as well as my own work. After all this, I have a pretty good idea of what I want.”
Both online and in real life, Vergara has been roaming Detroit’s poor neighborhoods, visiting housings projects and rooftops. I asked him if, despite being from Santiago and now living in New York, if he felt like a citizen of Detroit. “I feel like I am a citizen of the ghetto because those are the places I know the best,” he replied, referencing the ghettos of Camden, Newark, South Chicago and Harlem as well.
Detroit, though, has been Vergara’s main focus. It was the city where his love of ruins brought him to and it is also the city on which he focuses on in his latest book, Detroit Is No Dry Bones: The Eternal City of the Industrial Age. Every year, for the past 25 years, the documentarian has visited the city for at least a week. The book catalogs Detroit’s ill-fated suburbs, the city center’s partial revival, as well as murals, churches, and signage.
The latter is indicative of Detroit’s changing landscape and morphing typologies. “The signs I photograph stand for the culture that has been developed over many decades,” Vergara said. The subject of signage is even more poignant in Detroit, too, in a city that once produced the automobiles of America—cars that symbolized success and the American dream. Over time, the city’s car mechanics and garages transformed into cheaper-to-run car washes, and drive-ins, as money left the area. “It’s not just the white flight, it’s the money flight,” Vergara remarked.
More than automobile imagery, Vergara argued religious signage is more representative of Detroit’s visual culture. It’s residents, he says in his most recent book, are waiting for God to save the city. In one instance, on 14849 Livernois Avenue, a church photographed in 2000 changes to become home to “Motor Sales.” Vergara, on his rooftop with me, called these “storefront churches.” This theme has been prevalent in his work for some time, most notably seen in his book, How the Other Half Worships, an explicit nod to Riis that tracked how poor neighborhoods embraced religion.
Murals and signage are important to Vergara. In 2015 he was invited to speak at the Black In Design conference at Harvard University. “You think they’re going to get the sign painter that worked for car washers in Detroit?” he asked me. “No. They got designers that went to Ivy League schools and worked at high-end firms. “That leaves out this visual culture.”
“I like to call attention to this,” he continued, evidently agitated. “You can’t just ignore segregated areas like you get in Detroit where people have been there for decades and don’t have the money to move.” Another annoyance of his is how new, predominantly white residents, who set up shops, bars, and restaurants in Detroit’s downtown, display images from the 1930s and ’50s. “My beef is, why don’t you use the visual culture that was born from the riots?” (This year will be the 50th anniversary of the Detroit riots. A film called Detroit is coming out this August to mark the event.)
In a lecture at M.I.T. this year, he furthered this sentiment, pointing out how neighborhood artists are unaware of how to publicize their work due to issues such as not having an email account of having their phones disconnected. Of the artists he had spoken to, some had either done time in jail, were homeless, sick, or made money away from art. “In contrast, white artists are often represented by galleries and are able to apply for and receive foundation grants,” he said. “Local sign painters and commercial artists with a shrinking neighborhood market see their work further diminish as handmade signs are replaced by vinyl signs made inexpensively by commercial printers.”
In that same lecture, he added that it is his goal to acknowledge the “history and achievements” of people from Detroit’s segregated neighborhoods, “no matter how insignificant they may seem to the rest of the nation. I also try to answer the question, ‘What happens next?’ as I track these neighborhoods within the city’s larger evolution.”
Vergara’s answer to that question is bleak. To him, there appears to be “no way” of improving the living conditions of the majority of the population. “A dual city continues to develop in which a growing educated population is surrounded by 131 square miles of decline, where poor African Americans survive amidst decaying buildings and empty lots.” As the original population flees the poverty stricken suburbs, local businesses such as dry cleaners or barbershops become unsustainable, a scenario Vergara only sees worsening. “Already a quarter of a century ago, black Detroiters believed that the city might not be theirs for very long,” he said. “Now throughout Detroit one can find adumbrations of a white paradise of bed and breakfasts, fruit orchards, woodlands, goat farms and artists’ lofts.”
And as for what happens next to his own work? “Whether or not my work is used in 30 years time, I do not know,” he answered. “But it will be preserved because the library of congress purchased my collection.”
Vergara does, however, have a proposal for Detroit. “As a lifelong documentarian of the ephemeral visual culture of the American ghetto, I believe that the weathered commercial signs with their whimsical lettering, the religious imagery, the Afrocentric historical murals and the memorials to the dead found in the city’s neglected neighborhoods are defining elements of the Detroit spirit.” This visual culture, he attests, is overlooked by companies such as Shinola who prefer to reference the industrial age of Motor City.
The artwork and signage by locals, argues Vergara, must be preserved and thus acknowledged by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and furthermore, this art should be encouraged. In addition to this, he calls for the production and worldwide marketing of luxuries (such as the products from Shinola) made out of street art, with some of the profit going back to the neighborhoods.
“Detroit has a history that hasn’t been told all that much, if at all. This is what I am trying to do.”