Wednesday, June 17, 2009
The New York Historical Society is highlighting the powerful Harlem photographs of Camilo José Vergara in an exhibit, Harlem: 1970-2009, scheduled to be up through mid-July.
As someone who has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Harlem since the mid-1990s, I have had one of the many front row seats to the massive changes that just recently transformed this section of northern Manhattan.
In the 1980s, many experts were still labeling Harlem "gentrification-proof," so symbolically linked to African-American cultural difference that wealthier whites would never feel comfortable moving into the area, at least not in any significant numbers. The 1990s and 2000s have already proved that prediction absolutely wrong.
Vergara, a MacArthur "genius" and native Chilean who has been documenting urban life for decades, moved to NYC in 1970's and started shooting the city as soon as he arrived. This ongoing work has periodically congealed into several award-winning books of his photos. The themes of those books include many different aspects of urban life, focusing, in turn, on urban cemeteries, the re-ethnicization of American inner cities, the everydayness of religious experience, and the iconography of New York City's subway system.
He spoke at MIT last month, and MIT has a link to it online as part of that school's OpenCourseWare program, making it accessible via YouTube. I've provided the video above. It is a relatively long program (about an hour and a half), but it really provides a detailed (even inspiring) look at Vegara's approach to urban photography.