Friday, June 27, 2008


I spend a lot of time exploring urban neighborhoods. As much as possible, I drive down side streets and avoid expressways. The back way is invariably the most interesting way. When I visit cities for the first time (or the first time as a sentient adult), I find a well-informed, historically and sociologically savvy tour guides to show me around. And in cities that I know well, I gladly reciprocate. For those who can't join a tour, I try in my prose--as well as I can with words--to put the visual into text.

I wish I were a decent photographer, but alas I'm not. Fortunately, I have had the gift of spending hours driving around Detroit, Camden, and Philadelphia with photographer Camilo José Vergara. Several years ago, Camilo won a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant." Usually when the list of MacArthur winners is published, I scratch my head wondering what went through the minds of the selection committee. But not with Camilo. In my reckoning, a genius is someone who can introduce you to a whole new way of looking at the world. Whether the view is from the roof of one of his dinged up rental cars or in the pages of one of his subtle photo essays, Vergara leads me to see familiar places through a completely different pair of eyes. I know Detroit better than all but a handful of people, but still Camilo takes me to places that I thought I knew and forces me to reinterpret them altogether. From closeups of security bars to panoramic views of decaying streetscapes over time, Vergara captures the essence of the Rustbelt in both the micro and macro. His series on urban billboards in his monograph, American Ruins, re-interprets urban life through one of its most ubiquitous and banal forms. His photographs in How the Other Half Worships of storefront churches, converted synagogues, decaying cathedrals--along with graffiti murals of Christ and Martin Luther King, Jr.--capture the vitality of urban religion, whose practices and forms are too often reduced to bland generalizations about red states and blue states, values and morality.

Vergara is, at heart, a romantic: someone who finds sublime beauty in decay. His photographs of Camden, New Jersey's long-closed Carnegie Library, a beaux-arts monument constructed in 1903, captures the grandeur of a building whose architecture reflects its grand aspirations as a great civic institution and the loss of that vision over the last half century. (Vergara's Camden photos, especially his historical series, capture the transformation of the Rustbelt brilliantly). Vergara is not solely or primarily a photographer as social commentator, though some have compared him to Jacob Riis. He is a visionary, an artist of the highest order. His stunning vision of the interior of the library, showing three symmetrical trees growing from what was the floor of the main reading room, is the freshest and most interesting contribution to one of the oldest genres in art: the four seasons. Above is "summer."


carrel dweller said...

I live very near Camden, NJ -- Vergara's photos strike a chord. A friend of mine is building a theater for his company, the South Camden Theatre Company, on the waterfront in South Camden. I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do. Can art really save us, as his company's motto suggests? Or is it just one more step toward gentrification?

Keep up the great posts.

Tom S said...

I'm not sure that art can save us. But it can bring beauty to our cities and our lives. That's a small but important thing. And Camden is so far from gentrification that the development of the S. Camden waterfront can only be good.

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