Pictures From the Front

Camilo Jose Vergara and the Crumbling Cities

By Fred Camper

Photographer Camilo Jose Vergara says he first encountered racial tension on Maxwell Street. It was 1966, and he had been in the U.S. for only a year. He’d come from his native Chile to study at Notre Dame, and one weekend a college friend invited him to Chicago. “He wanted to show me something exotic,” Vergara recalls. “On a Sunday morning we went to the Maxwell Street market.”

While he found the market to be “very lively,” he noticed someone was staring at him. “I saw the eyes of a black man looking at me from a corner, and I felt this tremendous hostility, as if he was saying, ‘You don’t belong here.’ I thought, this man doesn’t know me–why is he looking at me like this? It’s hard to figure out, when you’ve just arrived, why all this intense emotion is directed toward you. But it’s a thing that bothers you, that stays with you–that look is something I’ve never been able to forget. I’d lived in Chile for 21 years and I’d never seen it. There are plenty of poor people there, but they just didn’t look at me with that same resentment and rancor.”

After he returned to South Bend, he took up street photography, and for the next three decades Vergara, the product of a once well-to-do family, would dedicate himself to photographing urban blight, documenting the decline of once prosperous city neighborhoods. Soon he was back in Chicago, where he took a photo on Maxwell Street, and again he felt resented. “A guy who was in that picture came running at me and said I owed him money and asked for two dollars. He got real close to me, in a kind of aggressive way.”

At the time, Vergara says, Chicago was “much more built-up” than now; he notes the change in some areas “where the buildings looked derelict to areas that now have these huge empty lots.” But Chicago was also the place where his friends came “to have a good time”–Vergara remembers beaches, foreign films, restaurants, the Art Institute. “There was a feeling of a city that radiated tremendous power. My impression of Chicago was associated with these huge buildings, the Dan Ryan Expressway, the voice of Larry Lujack and this 60s music roaring through on WLS.” But for years he stayed away from the city’s south and west sides.

In 1970 Vergara and his wife moved to Mount Vernon, just north of New York City. He took a job at a Manhattan ad agency and saw the South Bronx every day outside his train window. “The decline was happening so fast; the Bronx was in the news all the time. It attracted me like a magnet. I went again and again to photograph. My plan was to get off at different subway stations and walk around, so that I would see different things. There was a feel of fresh destruction–you could smell the fires. You would see buildings that had been occupied only two or three days before, but now people were going in and out to retrieve things. Dogs lingered around the buildings, looking out, after the people left. The Bronx was so densely built-up that when it started going you had these huge empty lots with big piles of rubble. Then the rubble would be removed; then the lots were empty; then trucks would come in the middle of the night and dump trash there, so the city built berms around the empty lots so you couldn’t drive trucks in.

“There were many photographers documenting this, and we all had the pictures of kids playing with tires or jumping up and down on mattresses in the empty lots, or of packs of wild dogs. I eventually realized that was not going to tell the story, the story of a country that was throwing away its cities. So in 1977 I switched from doing street scenes to focusing on the buildings, on entire blocks. The story to me was in the physical situation, the architecture, the crumbling of the buildings. A city is a physical thing, made of buildings, open spaces, parks, sidewalks, streets. This physical fabric is what a city is–you don’t have that and you don’t have a city. So it was vital for me to see what was happening to the buildings. I’d read about many of the causes. I knew that the Bronx used to have arson rings, and that many of the fires were set because the insured value of the buildings was higher than their commercial value. The causes were secondary to me because anybody could describe them. I was collecting evidence of the process of destruction. I had chances to see Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, even Los Angeles, and saw that this was a national phenomenon.

“My whole methodology of photographing was formulated in the Bronx. In 1977 I started photographing buildings in a straightforward manner with the idea of going back to the same places again and again. As a result, the lighting I used changed, the lenses I used changed, my whole attitude toward photography changed. If I were to place a person right in front of a building, I would be using it only as background, and then the story of the buildings wouldn’t come through. To tell that story you need to use special lenses, perspective-correcting or architecture lenses, so that the sides of the buildings wouldn’t be distorted. You had to get the buildings fully lit so you could count how many apartments were occupied and how many were abandoned. You see, I’m collecting evidence. I was looking to tell a story. You become a slave to a territory; you have to keep going back. You look for flat light that hits the whole building–you don’t want ‘interesting’ shadows. But this approach also insured that I had no future as a photographer for the next 20 years, because the first photograph would have little interest in itself.”

He often met reactions resembling the one he first encountered on Maxwell Street. In front of the Ida B. Wells project on the south side, “one man told me, ‘Get your fucking police ass out of here.'” In the Bronx, he had to run from people threatening him with knives. In Compton, “a woman drove a car straight at me and opened a door to hit me with it and said, ‘Get out of here, motherfucker!’

“Many times I stand up on the roof of my car to photograph a building, and there are people in the neighborhood who feel that I am going to use the picture against them, that I’m getting evidence of how local people have trashed the neighborhood, how they are responsible for the decline. They have already been burned many times by people who give an interpretation of their neighborhood that places the blame fully on the residents. Many times I have had people ask politely why I am taking a picture; others ask, ‘What right do you have to take a picture here?’

“I was photographing in Gary on a residential street, doing what I usually do: I parked my rental car and stood up on the roof to take a picture of the street. I saw a white man entering one of the houses, unusual in this totally black neighborhood. Then the guy came up to me and was angry at what I was doing. He said, ‘How can you come into this neighborhood in a brand-new car and stand on the roof in front of these people’s homes? These people are very poor here. They respect cars. You’re insulting their poverty.’ I asked him what he was doing there, and he said, ‘I work for the power company, and I’m shutting off the electricity.’ I asked, ‘Why would they be annoyed at me? Wouldn’t they be annoyed at you for turning off their power?’ And he said, ‘No, because I do it in a very polite way.'”

In 1979 Vergara started taking pictures of Chicago neighborhoods. Since then he’s returned every year in two- or three-week stretches. “I first had to organize my photographing. I thought of a spider web–if you can put down a spider web that covers the south or west side. I was looking for something I call saturation. Only that way can you be sure you have photographs of things that are changing, because not everything changes.” He headed to the areas devastated by the 1968 riots. “West Madison became important. I still travel it back and forth. I have hundreds of photographs. I have seen many buildings disappear. At first, the street was very run-down, with lots of derelict buildings and empty lots, but not as many empty lots as you have today.”

These early trips to Chicago were awkward for Vergara because they were ostensibly trips to visit his in-laws. He felt he’d become “sort of an embarrassment to my family.” He didn’t have a steady job and survived with the help of occasional grants. “What was I doing? It’s all right to have a hobby when you have a job. How do you understand a hobby that’s taking up most of your time, that’s become an obsession? This is what I wanted to do full-time, but it was not producing any income. I’m not ashamed to say that there’s been a lot of mooching. The cars that I drove in Chicago were often my in-laws’ cars, and they would grumble because I would often bring them back with dents in the roofs from standing on them. Then in 1981 I had a show that was reviewed in Time magazine, and so whenever my sister-in-law would see me going somewhere to photograph she decided to say, ‘You are going to work.’

“None of my work has to do with the single epiphany-type picture. That is why no photography museum in this country pays any attention to my stuff, because this is not ‘art’ photography. It has to do instead with this huge story of a major historical happening here in this country. Coming into the second part of the 20th century, for whatever reasons, not just the corporations and federal government decided to abandon the cities–the people themselves followed. That has been a decision of very fateful consequences.” Vergara points out that Chicago has lost more than 23 percent of its population since 1950. During the 80s the city lost 100,000 African-Americans. “Today something like 90 percent of new construction takes place in the suburbs. When the cities were growing, 20,000 units or more of new housing a year would be normal. Now in a year the city of Detroit may put up 200 new units.”

Vergara says he still faithfully returns to the south side, “from about 30th Street all the way down to Gary. I try to drive through the entire area, and especially to certain streets around the housing projects. These go through the different periods, almost like different governments. The Lane period saw the reinforcement of the ground floors, attempts to fix buildings. [CHA chairman Vince] Lane emphasized security, so you began to see all this paraphernalia: the bars, the video cameras, the metal detectors, the people who sat up front who you had to sign in with. In some cases it’s working.”

Vergara’s 1995 book The New American Ghetto, just out in paperback, serves as the basis for an exhibit of his photos opening this week at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. It includes three pictures taken over a seven-year period at 511 Browning, part of Ida B. Wells. “When I saw it in ’87, it was the worst public building in Chicago. Then it was fixed. They changed the tenants; it was much better. But other buildings were fixed too, and then you saw fires again.”

In 1989 Vergara started photographing the interiors of CHA buildings. “The CHA management is usually pleased to have someone like me go through, who can record what they’re up against so that the expectations don’t get too high. But I made it clear that I wasn’t going to be shooting details of the buildings that they might think would be damaging to the housing authority.” He didn’t photograph the rooms containing elevator equipment, which “look like scenes from 40 or 50 years ago. The machinery is rusted like an old ship. You see sparks. They have the feeling of a room where Dr. Frankenstein has been doing experiments.”

He’s fascinated by colorful murals on the sides of ghetto buildings. “My conviction as I go through the neighborhoods is that there are many artists with great talent, but whose work stays there and goes unnoticed.” One photo shows a mural on the side of an empty building at 47th and Drexel with figures behind elegant curtains in upper-story windows, as if the building were occupied again. Vergara has also seen “private art, that people do in their in own rooms, that becomes visible when the building is abandoned. You can go into someone’s bedroom and find a mural or a self-portrait on the wall in pencil or paint or spray paint. In Chicago there was a very striking mural of scenes from African-American history that became exposed when the building next to it was demolished. I got to know the maker of one mural that’s on the side of a fish store. Here’s a place that’s selling porgies and smelts and clams and this guy painted a whale. He said, ‘The whale is the king of the fishes.’ I had to admire his ambition. Now the plaster has fallen off, and there’s a billboard behind it.” The billboard says “Some things change, some things remain the same. NAACP.”

Most surprising, perhaps, were the butterflies. “I remember chasing them on the roof of the ABLA homes,” he says. “In the summer a green carpet of moss and grass will spring up between the pebbles that cover the roof. It looks almost like a beach.”

Recalling the man who first eyed him suspiciously on Maxwell Street, Vergara says he now understands. “He thought, ‘This guy has a better life than I do, and why?’ He saw me as one of the perpetrators.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Cabrini-Green, 1990; West Madison Street, 1988; Camilo Jose Vergara; and 47th Street, 1993, by Camilo Jose Vergara.