Decades of Harlem Through Photographs

June 25, 2014 at 11:44 am

Jack Ford interviews photographer Camilo José Vergara about his book Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto.

Camilo José Vergara has been photographing Harlem for decades.

In his new book, Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto, Vergara takes readers on a forty-three year photographic journey through Harlem. Vergara holds a master’s degree in Sociology from Columbia University and was the first photographer to receive a National Humanities medal in 2013. He was also named a MacArthur fellow in 2002 for documenting urban changes throughout the country.

“I was chronicling a world that was falling apart,” said Vergara about Harlem, “All of my life I’ve been interested in things that are falling apart. There were other people at the same time that were interested in brand new cars with big fins and stuff like that. I was just interested in rust and things that were crumbled.”

In the interview, Jack Ford asked Vergara if the cover photo of the book, which shows three boys standing on top of rubble, reminded him of Berlin after World War II.

“To me it was a world of destruction in the beginning,” he said, “of tremendous destruction, and violence, and crime, and the drugs that sort of dominated the neighborhood. To me that’s what I was seeing.”

Vergara began documenting Harlem in the seventies when New York City was on the edge of bankruptcy. However, instead of documenting what he thought would be the fall of Harlem, he photographed its survival and emergence of the neighborhood.

Vergara captured the neighborhood’s transformation by returning repeatedly to photograph the same locations and buildings over several years.  Throughout his book, Vergara also documented the people of Harlem, along with its streets and landmarks.

“You live with two Harlems,” he said, “you live with the Harlem that you’re looking at and you live with the Harlem of all the great people that live there.”