“America was supposed to be a country of big buildings, of ever-growing construction of roads, and stuff. And it is; and it is. But in addition to that, there is another America that has all of these things left behind.”
Conversation with Ilan Stavans and Camilo Jose Vergara
STAVANS: Camillo Jose Vergara, you are a photographer of the American city, a city often in a state of decay. You were also born in Chile. As an outsider, does that affect the way you see the American city?
VERGARA: Well very much so. And I think what I found striking at first was to see so much that had been built, over so many years and with so much care, just being left there. For the trees to grow in it and for the windows boarded up, and for the details in the buildings to just fall.
STAVANS: The opposite image of what America is about?
VERGARA: It was just the opposite. America was supposed to be a country of big buildings, of ever-growing construction of roads, and stuff. And it is; and it is. But in addition to that, there is another America that has all of these things left behind. And things left behind that, more than anything, have now become permanent.
STAVANS: And you seem to be saying with your photographs that that part of the American city, is what we need to pay attention to and return to. Why so? Is it not better to forget, or to look aside, to eclipse it?
VERGARA: Well, there are many reasons to keep in contact with those places. First of all, the legacy of the past, what you find there, it’s very significant. The buildings have a very high quality: bank buildings, schools, built in styles and with a care that’s not given today, or is rarely given today to school buildings. Or post offices. A post office today could be in a trailer. A post office in the twenties, was a solid building, and a building that gave you pride.
Broadway from Newton Ave., Camden, New Jersey, 1982
Front St. and North St., Camden, New Jersey, 1982
“Oh, I do get scared. But at the same time, it’s the presence of danger. In a sense, the fact that there is activity in a place, means that that place is getting a new forum and it’s maybe a faster way.”
And today, because the places where I photograph have undergone such decline, then what you have is a possibility to see what was there before and what is there today.
STAVANS: So are you suggesting, Camillo, that these images are there and will be soon replaced by bigger buildings? I don’t get that impression. You seem to be saying that those ruins are there in an almost permanent place.
VERGARA: Well they can be replaced, but if they’re replaced, they’ll be replaced by parking lots. Or they’ll be replaced by empty lots. So that, you have this eerie vision of cities that stretch and almost a pastoral view of big fields of green, and a house here and a house there. It’s just a view that is completely opposite to the crowded city.
STAVANS: You often go to neighborhoods that are dangerous. Is “danger” an essential part of how you like to take those photographs? Do you get scared?
VERGARA: Oh, I do get scared. But at the same time, it’s the presence of danger. In a sense, the fact that there is activity in a place, means that that place is getting a new forum and it’s maybe a faster way. So in other words, you’re driven to photograph, often in the places where the drug dealing is taking place, or where there are, games of the throwing dice or drinking, or the local liquor stores and so on. Or the welfare, or the places that treat addicts.
STAVANS: How do you make the place that you’re about to photograph, “yours?” Do you keep on returning to it before you decide to take the first shot? And do you work with your camera, and whatever you see, do you register it at the first sight? Tell me your connection to place.
VERGARA: Well at one level, I want to do examples of certain type of buildings. So if I see a school, I’m really interested in photographing a school. Particularly the entrance to the school, because I want to show where children that lived in these neighborhoods face when they go to school and when they come out of school. So I’m often seen in front of a school, standing up on the roof of a car, waiting for someone to come out because that livens the place up, photographing.
And post offices interest me, day care centers, public buildings of other sort. Commercial buildings; you know, the old car shops and so on.
STAVANS: Yet the photographs that I’ve seen of yours– and I have seen many and I’m just stunned by their quality, and the content and the message that they project– are almost always empty of people. And when people show up, they are there as “one more item”. It is as if the human part was perceived more in the architecture than in the activity. You wait for the people to come in and out of the school, business you are not focusing on them?
VERGARA: Not in the sense that I want them to fill the frame. I want them as part of the city, as part of the block. I want it to be seen that there is someone that’s walking around. Partly to give you scale and partly to show that the places are inhabited, because you know, certainly people still live there.
But the problem with people, on focusing with people, is that they are very demonstrative. And their clothes reflect the time, and their games they play and their expressions, all of that: they’re important from a historical point of view. But the buildings speak more eloquently about the time passing than the people themselves. I mean, what do you see? You see a face?
One of my big surprises was to walk into a room of Roman heads at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And I looked at those heads and I said, “These folks lived 2000 years ago.” And they just looked like the folks out on the street, you know? So then what can you say about the city by focusing on faces, expressions, their delight? I mean faces are interesting; I’m not against portrait photography. But portrait photography doesn’t tell the story of a city.
STAVANS: Yes. Obviously your photographs have a clear political line. Tell me how you perceive the connection between politics and photography. Should photographs be used to change our approach to the city, to the environment? Or do you simply want to present them as a statement of what it is, and that’s it?
VERGARA: Well, at the beginning I stayed away from politics, like the plague, because if you’re very political, if you make your politics clear, then you become preachy. And the moment you become preachy and you start talking, you get up on your high horse and start telling people how they should behave, and what should they do and what they shouldn’t do. To some degree the photographs can tell stories.
The question, obviously, seeing a photograph is: why is this here? What is this tawdry day care center doing here? Why do they have day care centers like this in Newark, New Jersey? Or why do they have a post office like this in Harlem? You know, that’s an obvious question. Or why do they have ruined skyscrapers in Detroit?
So for many, many years I’ve thought that that would suffice; that if you just release this and you tell a little bit about that story– “This used to be the headquarters of this corporation. The corporation stayed there for some number of years. And then they left, and then the City took it over. And then there were, you know, all kinds of different functions in this building. There was a divorce lawyer in the fourteenth floor, and if you go there, you can see all the files from the divorces that took place in the 1950s. You know, as was the case of a skyscraper in Newark.”
And then– then it seems to me that that would create the link, that people would relate to that building without me having to tell them, “Isn’t it a darn shame?”
STAVANS: Now very few photographers bring out their work in the fashion that you do. You put the photographs in books, and you editorialize the context in which those photographs came about– or your experience of the place– by creating a narrative that mixes the autobiographical with the sociological-anthropological-historical. And so more than small captions, you have an entire story about it. Is that how you photograph, thinking how that image is going to sit in a larger book?
VERGARA: I photograph thinking that the places themselves are going to tell me a story eventually. And they do. The story needs time so that it can tell itself. And I need to go there frequently enough so that I can get that story.
Now the elements of the story are, on the one hand, the building and whatever is happening to the building: who is using it, for what purpose, what is falling, what’s being fixed, how? Is the City boarding it up? How is it boarding it up? Is it using tin, is it using wood? Who is doing this sort of stuff? Are they putting a fence around it? All of those things.
And then the other element of the narrative is what people tell you about that building: what’s going on inside. How do they perceive it? What’s their idea of the building? See, they are allowed to say that “this is a darn shame that that library is abandoned.” But I’m not allowed to say that.
STAVANS: I see, you let those voices tell the story.
“So I would go look up the figures and say, ‘What are the poorest census tracts in Chicago? What are the poorest ones in Detroit?'”
STAVANS: I want to ask you about the other connection that comes to me when I look at your photographs. And that is the whole question of memory, how those images memorialize, or become a memorial in some ways, of the city-that-was, or the city that it still is, but in a state of decay and of ruins. And I want you to tell me about it in connection with that project that you created, reflecting on the Twin Towers before and after.
Of all the books that I’ve seen, it is the one that presents the connection in a less subtle and heroic way. Tell me about how that project began, and the connection with memory.
VERGARA: The Twin Towers began as being sort of the peasant person that comes to the big city. And here is the biggest building in the world going up in your backyard, and you just look at it. You know, like–
STAVANS: “Fantastic!” (Overlapping Conversation)
VERGARA: When I would go downtown in Santiago, the tallest building was 14 stories. I would go around and look up, but my mother would say, “Don’t look! That’s what hicks do.” And here, I could look as much as I want and see this immense thing going up, so I was fascinated by them from the beginning.
Then of course, I went far away to the neighborhoods. And one of my approaches to photography is to get on the roof of buildings. Housing projects in New York are very tall, they’re usually 12, 16 story, 21 story buildings. So I would go up the roof, and from the roof I would photograph, so of course you get the Twin Towers. But they would be different Twin Towers than the other folks get, because I got the ghetto in between.
So it’d be tall building, ghetto?
STAVANS: And then the Towers.
VERGARA: ?and then the Towers. And then what happened, and I don’t know how this happened, is that people accepted that depiction as being a very fine one. And related to it, even though they never saw it that way, even though they never lived in those places, and the book was a big success.
STAVANS: Tell me your first experience as a photographer. How did you come to have a camera and start taking pictures? Were you given one when you were little, or did you happen on one, at one point?
VERGARA: No, I tried to be like you and write about literature, and write poems and novels and stuff.
STAVANS: So you started through texts, so to speak?
VERGARA: Yes, and then one of my professors at Notre Dame came to me and he said, “Look, you’re a lousy poet. But they have a camera for sale here, a used camera.”
STAVANS: This is true? The professor mentioned that?
VERGARA: Yes. Yes. “And I can lend you the money, you can buy it, and you can try it. And you know, I have a feeling that maybe that route is more suited to your abilities. So, of course I got the camera. He asked me to pay him back afterwards.
STAVANS: And that led you to the career that you’ve had?
VERGARA: Yes, yes.
STAVANS: And yet you were telling me that when you were little, your mother would tell you, “Don’t look up”?
STAVANS: You keep on repeating that word, “I looked at this, I perceived that.” You use sight as a way to connect to what is around you. When you enter a place, do you immediately visualize how it could be photographed?
VERGARA: That’s relatively simple to me, because I was married to an art historian. And whenever I would bring my photographs back she would say, “Why do you crop it like this? I want to see the whole thing. Show me the whole thing.” So early on I started to photograph entire buildings. So it wasn’t until I had a photograph that could show the building in its view, that would approach completeness. Of course a building can be seen in millions of ways, but there is a certain way that gives you a pretty good idea of what the building is like. So that was the first view that I had to go and get. And then there were details of course that you get in addition to that.
STAVANS: One of your most recent projects is photographing houses of worship in this country. And you show a vast array of possibilities, of different religions and different connections to the places where people pray. And that book, compared to others, shows people in this ecstatic state of connecting with the Divine. Are you a religious person?
VERGARA: I haven’t been able to get rid of the religiosity that was put into me in my upbringing, as a child. I grew up Catholic. I was educated by Christian Brothers, then by Salesians and then by Jesuits. I had relatives that were in different orders of the Catholic Church, so the Catholic presence and influence was very strong.
And it was the old Catholic Church, often in Latin and with incense and dark churches, the kind of thing that really makes an impact on you, that sort of stayed with me. And I don’t think it’s in my power to get rid of that, and I don’t think I want to, either. Because it gives you a certain intensity that if you don’t have that sort of experience. Try the limits which are shown in religion.
STAVANS: And we’ve talked about photographs and memory, and photographs and love, or connection to place. But is there something also in the art and act of photography that is religious? In your taking a photograph, is there some ecstatic element or some connection with the Divine, or with higher powers that you could describe, that happened to you?
VERGARA: Well, there is a respect for the object, there is a respect for the place. There is a respect for what the place meant at what time. There is a need to record it so that if it disappears, there is some record of it. There is a need to put down the coordinates: in this place, at this time, this existed. Because you feel that about yourself; you are also a point, a dot. You know, you move around a little bit. But you know, you’re in this place, in this time, and then you’ll be erased.
STAVANS: How did that project of photographing houses of prayer in the United States come about? Is this something old, or something recent in you? And was it an idea that came from somebody else, or from you?
VERGARA: It was both. It was an old project in the sense that my territory was usually the poorest areas in the United States. So I would go look up the figures and say, “What are the poorest census tracts in Chicago? What are the poorest ones in Detroit?” To make sure to go there. It was full of churches.
So first, you do a lot of churches: you look at their form, you look at how they change. So you do the outside. After awhile what happened is that I wanted to show my work as it evolved. And I looked at the number of churches that I photograph and I realized that this was a mature topic. That there was enough variety, there was enough richness, and now I needed to go inside.
So then I knocked on the doors. I drove at night. I would see a light in a church. Sometimes, these neighborhoods are all dark, not even the city lights are working. So you go inside, you see some lights. And they lock themselves to pray, or they lock themselves to have choir practice because, the sense of security is so precarious.
So then you have to knock on really hard and for a long time. And then somebody comes in, and you go in. And sometimes they’re really hospitable and talk to you, or they can sit there and look.
STAVANS: But did you also get the sense of being an intruder, of jumping into people’s personal lives in a way that made them uncomfortable and maybe you, too?
VERGARA: That happened a few times because sometimes you’re careless. But if you do the thing with respect, you know, you sense what their priorities are. And they would tell you, “Just come another time; come tomorrow.” But on the other hand, many pastors, ministers or congregation members feel that you’re an opportunity. Because they are on this earth to save souls. And supposedly, you have one! “So here is a soul that’s coming to me, so let me work on him.”
STAVANS: So religion is also about hope. Is your photography also, in some ways, Camillo, about hope? About showing a side of things that is decay, but maybe on the verge of turning around?
VERGARA: I think the feeling presently, that I think it’s also affected me is that many people in this country believe that poverty, that ghettoes, that poor people are sort of a permanent fixture of our society. That there is no way to get rid of it. At least, eternity is not given to us, but for the duration of our lives and maybe of our children’s lives. That is a very hard thing to live with.
What I want to do with my photography then, is to be able to connect to younger people. And a few times, I’ve had speaking engagements in different schools, where the audience, are people in their twenties, late teens and twenties. College students, younger graduates. And I think if one starts, and if it sort of becomes– the knowledge of the existence of these places and spaces, the accessibility becomes clear to them either through a website or through books, so they know the exact places to go–
STAVANS: Then they react?
VERGARA: Then you will establish a connection.
STAVANS: Camillo, I want to thank you for coming to the show. It’s been a great pleasure.
VERGARA: (Laughs) Well, for me it’s been a delight.
STAVANS: Thank you.
ASX CHANNEL: Camilo Jose Vergara
(© Ilan Stavans. All rights reserved. All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher)