Harlem Transformed: the Photos of Camilo José Vergara

For decades, the photographer has documented the physical and cultural changes in Harlem and other American urban communities

Girls, Barbies, Harlem, 1970. (Camilo José Vergara / New-York Historical Society)

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The problem, he feels, is that art has become all about mystification. “If artists keep things unsaid, untold, then you focus on the formal qualities of the picture, and then it becomes a work of art. The more you explain, the less it is a work of art, and people pay you less for the photograph,” he says. “But I don’t like to mystify things—I like to explain things.”

“My project is not about photography; it’s about Harlem,” he insists. “I think there is a reality out there, that if you frame it, you get at it. You may not get the whole thing, but you do get it in important ways.”

Getting it, for Vergara, involves a certain amount of detachment. There is an almost clinical quality to some of his work. He chooses not to focus excessively on images of poor people, however engaging or emotional such pictures can be, because they establish a false sense of connection between viewer and subject. “I found that images of the physical communities in which people live better reveal the choices made by residents,” he wrote in a 2005 essay.

Vergara knows about poverty first-hand. His own family background made him “a specialist in decline,” he says.

Born in 1944 in Rengo, Chile, in the shadow of the Andes, Vergara says his once-wealthy family exemplified downward mobility. “We always had less and less and less,” he says. “It got pretty bad.” Coming to the U.S. in 1965 to study at Notre Dame University only reinforced his sense of dispossession. Other kids’ parents would come to visit in station wagons, throw huge tailgate parties and get excited about a kind of football he had never seen before. “So I was a stranger, as complete a stranger as you can be,” he says. “I couldn’t even speak in my own language.”

He found himself gravitating to the poorer sections of town, and when he traveled to blue-collar Gary, Indiana, he found “paradise,” he says—“in quotation marks.” Vergara eventually came to New York City to do graduate work in sociology at Columbia University, and soon thereafter began exploring Harlem and taking pictures, an endeavor that has taken him coast-to-coast many times since, tending the ground he has staked out.

“It’s the immigrant that wants to possess the country that’s not his,” he says. Through his pictures, Vergara says, “I have these little pieces—banks, old cars, homeless shelters, people getting arrested. It’s like I am a farmer, I have all of these things. They are what has given me citizenship.”


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