Photographer Spends 40 Years Shooting The Same Buildings Over And Over To Document American Ghettos

Jan 8, 2015

Tiffany Mueller

Tiffany Mueller is a photographer and content strategist based in Hawi, Hawaii. Her work has been shared by top publications like The New York Times, Adobe, and others.

Photographer Spends 40 Years Shooting The Same Buildings Over And Over To Document American Ghettos

Jan 8, 2015

Tiffany Mueller

Tiffany Mueller is a photographer and content strategist based in Hawi, Hawaii. Her work has been shared by top publications like The New York Times, Adobe, and others.

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Ransom Gillis Mansion; Detroit, Michigan 1993-2013
Ransom Gillis Mansion; Detroit, Michigan 1993-2013

Rewind back to the 1970’s and Chilean born photographer, Camilo José Vergara, had just begun what would become one of the most extensive and important photography projects taken on by a single photographer. Armed with a 35mm camera and some Kodachrome 64, Vergara hit the inner city streets of 16 different cities across the United States and began documenting the evolution of the ghetto one photo at a time.

Over the course of the next 40+ years, Vergara would continue on his journey, revisiting many of the same locations he’d already documented year after year to photograph them again, in similar, if not exact, fashion. Vergara now has 10’s of thousands of photographs that, together, provide a visual history of decay and rebirth in America.

Former Corn Exchange Bank, NW corner of E. 125th St at Park Ave. Harlem; 1982-2014
Former Corn Exchange Bank, NW corner of E. 125th St at Park Ave. Harlem; 1982-2014

Back in 2013, Vergara began working with the Library of Congress in effort to scan, digitize, and assemble an online gallery using 10,000 images from the collection. Helena Zinkman, head of the Library’s prints and photographs division, told the New York Times, “I wanted the whole body of work on a single site, where people can look and develop their own ideas for further exploration. His work is a good fit for the nation’s library because he has worked in so many parts of the United States.”

Reading Vergara’s own words on his life’s work, you begin to understand what the project meant to the photographer. How seriously he took his work, day in and day out. Travelling in circles to capture history with the hopes that, one day, his frozen moments of time will be used to help others understand a culture that is too often misunderstood and often ignored. For Vergara, photography is a tool in his bag which enables him to build visions and a base of knowledge for each individual location.

919 South 9th St., Camden, 2004 (above); 919 South 9th St., Camden. Buddy, a retired construction worker and the neighbor of 50 years, fenced the empty lot to use it as a vegetable garden, 2013 (below)
919 South 9th St., Camden, 2004 (above); 919 South 9th St., Camden. Buddy, a retired construction worker and the neighbor of 50 years, fenced the empty lot to use it as a vegetable garden, 2013 (below)

Though a vast majority of the project is meant to be used as a timeline where viewers can compare images of specific locations taken over a period of time, Vergara’s love of street photography ensures there’s plenty of individual shots that still serve the purpose of documentation, but do so in a stand alone manner.

S. E. corner of St. Julian and 6th St., Skid Row, Los Angeles, 2003
S. E. corner of St. Julian and 6th St., Skid Row, Los Angeles, 2003

“For more than four decades I have devoted myself to photographing and systematically documenting the poorest and most segregated communities in urban America…I began my documentation in the tradition of such masters as Helen Levitt, Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson, for all of whom the human figure was integral to their work. But increasingly, I became drawn to the urban fabric of America’s poor inner cities…Along the way I became a historically conscious documentarian, an archivist of decline, a photographer of walls, buildings and city blocks. My hope is that my long-term records will become part of our collective urban memory.”

oamr ave
Omar Ave. at Boyd St., Skid Row, LA, 2007
S. E. corner of St. Julian and 6th St., Skid Row, Los Angeles, 2003
S. E. corner of St. Julian and 6th St., Skid Row, Los Angeles, 2003

To read more about the project you can visit Vergara’s website. His Virtual Encyclopedia Of The American Ghetto can be found on InvincibleCities.com, where you can explore the country using an interactive map featuring Vergara’s photos from Camden, New Jersey, Harlem, New York, and Richmond, California.

[ Camilo José Vergara | Invisible Cities | via NY Times ]

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Tiffany Mueller

Tiffany Mueller

Tiffany Mueller is a photographer and content strategist based in Hawi, Hawaii. Her work has been shared by top publications like The New York Times, Adobe, and others.

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3 responses to “Photographer Spends 40 Years Shooting The Same Buildings Over And Over To Document American Ghettos”

  1. doge Avatar
    doge

    Pretty incredible timing that he was in NYC on Sept. 11, 2001.

    Very cool project.

  2. Les Hassell Avatar
    Les Hassell

    are those just like the fastest growing trees in the world or what?

  3. Gary Bailey Avatar
    Gary Bailey

    Owen?