Camilo José Vergara’s photography gives us an intriguing glimpse into the passage of time. For the past 40 years, he’s been using his camera to document the changing face of the American inner city. Employing an intriguing technique, he’s managed to capture the passage of time, and the results can only be described as breathtaking.
Rather than just taking photographs of the decaying state of certain areas, Vergara went one step further. His project spans four different decades, and it’s an eye-opening look at just how much change the cities of America have undergone in that time. Moreover, the work is all thanks to Vergara’s perseverance.
Instead of just taking one photo of a building, the photographer came back time and time again. Over nearly half a century, then, he captured images from the same places, in each case creating a story focused on a single yet changing view. These strange time lapses document areas in New York, Los Angeles and various other American cities.
For example, this first series of photographs features a building in LA. It’s located at 10828 S. Avalon Blvd., and the photographs here span more than two decades. They show the changing face not just of the building itself, but of the surrounding area, too. The building is pictured in its transformation from a church to a store to an empty shell – in this last instance with new construction springing up behind it.
On his website, Vergara describes himself as “an archivist of decline,” and looking at the photographs, you can see why. His images feature poor and segregated communities and show how they’ve changed over time. And according to Vergara, there’s a very good reason why he focused on buildings.
On his website, the photographer has claimed that it’s not the faces of the people in a community that best represent its changes. “I feel that a people’s past, including their accomplishments, aspirations and failures, are reflected less in the faces of those who live in these neighborhoods than in the material, built environment in which they move and modify over time,” he has said.
And it’s precisely this that Vergara has chronicled. For instance, in these stunning photos, which make up a project called Tracking Time, Vergara tells the story of a city. And it’s a story that he thinks is almost painfully honest. “Bricks, signs, trees, and sidewalks have spoken to me the most truthfully and eloquently about urban reality,” he has explained on his website.
Perhaps the most interesting series of photos features a house called the Ransom Gillis Mansion in Detroit. The images show the building falling into a state of complete disrepair, only for scaffolding to eventually spring up. The building had fallen into disuse in the 1960s, yet it was restored to its former glory in 2015.
Meanwhile, the photos don’t just capture the buildings but also the life around them. There are signs and murals, plants and trash cans. Yet Vergara’s work didn’t always look to objects for its narrative. When he first started snapping in the early 1970s, for instance, his work was primarily concerned with the people who occupied these poor neighborhoods.
However, Vergara’s methods have changed along the way, and so too has the equipment that he employs to take the photographs. In the early days, for example, he used a film called Kodachrome 64 and a 35 mm camera. According to Vergara, this gave him “the medium speed and fine grain emulsion appropriate for creating a lasting archive of buildings and city blocks.”
Later, in the ’00s, the photographer switched to using a digital camera alongside Fujichrome Provia 100 film. And he sees each new combination of equipment as a different stage in the evolution of his project. Nowadays, he uses a number of interesting modern techniques to go deeper into the cities that he’s photographing.
One tool that Vergara has started to bring into play is, for instance, Google Maps. Writing on his website, he has said he uses that service and internet searches to discover more about the areas he’s photographing. In particular, he makes use of Google Street View, which allows him to revisit areas he’s been photographing with much greater ease than before.
The extra connectivity of the modern age has helped out Vergara greatly as well. As he has explained, “With a simple search on Google for a particular location, I was able to find newspaper and magazine articles, religious pamphlets, student papers, announcements for conferences and political meetings that enriched the context of my research and prompted me to ask fresh questions and take new photographs.”
These next images are from New York. The building is at 65 East 125th Street in Harlem. And the photos show not just the changing face of the shops, but the changing colors of the urban landscape. Eventually, the space becomes something completely different from the retail units that Vergara first photographed.
Much of Vergara’s work focuses on the religious. His images often show how religious buildings have changed over time or how they’ve remained the same in the face of change. But Vergara deals with other themes, too, and he tries not to allow his own personality to bleed through into the images, either.
Speaking on his website, Vergara has talked about the need he felt to create an objective portrait of poor America. “I did not want to limit the scope of my documentation to places and scenes that captured my interest merely because they immediately resonated with my personality,” he has said. And so he developed his own special photography method.
Vergara’s method involves what he calls “blanketing” areas with images. Essentially, he would return to the same spot to photograph, with his lens picking up not just buildings, but space too. Sometimes he’d photograph empty lots, ready to capture any changes in those places when he returned. And, interestingly, his work in these spaces isn’t just reserved for the camera.
Rather, Vergara makes notes about his ever-growing archive of photos. The images pose questions to himself, and he, in turn, takes these questions to people who live in the areas. He speaks to academics as well, exploring the reasons behind the changes seen in the communities that he’s captured on film.
Ultimately, Vergara’s work is comparative, too. He compares the images that he captures in one city with pictures he’s taken in another. And it’s all to emphasize and understand the connections that exist between these poor and minority neighbors. In effect, then, he creates what he calls “a dense web of images.”
In the end, Vergara’s work gives us a unique and often unbelievable look at the changes that sometimes pass us by in our cities. It’s perhaps fitting, therefore, that the photographer sees himself as a builder as well. As he has stated, “I am a builder of virtual cities. I think of my images as bricks that, when placed next to each other, reveal shapes and meanings of neglected urban communities.”