Avenue C, Lower East Side.
The photographer and documentarian Camilo José Vergara uses photographs as “a means of discovery, as a tool with which to clarify visions and construct knowledge about a particular city or place.” Pictures, for Vergara, are the starting point in asking questions or linking to other images or investigating new territories and ideas.
Born in Santiago, Chile in 1944, Vergara started his career as a photographer after he arrived in New York City during the 1960s. He graduated with a B.A. in sociology from the University of Notre Dame, and went on to study an M.A. in sociology at Columbia University. It was while at Columbia that Vergara saw the potential in using photography to document the changes in the city’s urban environment and its influence on social behavior. This eventually led to Vergara’s work in rephotography—literally then and now photography—where he documents one location over a number of years or decades.
In 1970, Vergara began documenting New York street life capturing the children, families and communities living among the city’s urban decay. Vergara’s photographs showed parts of New York that looked like bombed-out war zones, deprived areas suffering the worst of both city and state indifference.
Since this early work in New York, Vergara has documented poor, minority communities in Chicago, Newark, Detroit, Los Angeles and sixteen other cities across the U.S.A. This work has produced an archive of over 14,000 color slides, numerous books, exhibitions and film documentaries. Vergara intends this enormous back catalog to form a basis for The Visual Encyclopedia of the American Ghetto to “visualize how ghettos change over time, understand the nature and meaning of social and economic inequality in urban America.”
For his photographic work, Vergara’s has won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2002, the Berlin Prize in 2010 and the National Humanities Medal in 2013. The following is just a small selection of his photographs taken on the streets of New York during 1970.
Girls with Barbies, East Harlem.
Fifth Ave at 110th Street, East Harlem.
More of Vergara’s powerful photographs from New York 1970, after the jump…