One of the most important urban photographers of our time, Camilo José Vergara arrived in the United States in the midst of the “urban crisis,” as great American cities struggled with massive deindustrialization and commercial disinvestment, deep racial segregation, and intense street-level protests and violence. In 1970, Vergara, working as an audio-visual assistant for an advertising firm in New York, took his lunch breaks to explore Harlem, his camera in hand, inspired by Roy DeCarava and Henri Cartier-Bresson. After a stint as a graduate student in sociology at Columbia, he returned to Harlem again with a new sense of purpose. “I began to photograph again,” he recalled, but this time “relying on sociological methodology as well as intuition,” with the intention of making “a complete and objective portrait of the American inner city.” Within several years, Vergara turned his lens on impoverished neighborhoods and postindustrial wastelands throughout the Rustbelt, including Camden, Chicago, Gary, and especially Detroit.
Vergara gravitated toward Detroit’s spectacular ruins: a glorious French Renaissance revival movie theater turned into a parking garage, the collapsed roofs of abandoned 19th-century mansions, the orphaned houses standing alone in once dense neighborhoods turned to prairie, and the hulking masses of the city’s long-vacant auto plants. Vergara found beauty in the city’s ruins, once controversially arguing that the empty neoclassical and Art Deco skyscrapers in the city’s then mostly-empty downtown might be turned into an “American Acropolis,” a “grand national historic park of play and wonder.” Some critics branded Vergara the progenitor of “ruin porn,” an exploding photographic genre that fetishizes the abject remains of once-glorious cities, often through aesthetically stunning—but usually decontextualized—images of decay.
Vergara is an artist who sees the crumbling Michigan Central Station as Percy Bysshe Shelley saw the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. But he is also deeply historical and social-scientific in his understanding of the urban life, the result of his distinctive method. In the late 1970s, he began taking time-lapse photographs of buildings, streetscapes, and ruins. As critic John Patrick Leary has argued, Vergara “addresses the ahistorical failing of much ruin photography by investing much more heavily in the ruins: Revisiting the same site over a period of years, or even decades, Vergara’s pictures show with often heartbreaking clarity the slow, painful transformation of a house, a street, a neighborhood.” For all of his interest in the aesthetics of decline and ruination, Vergara is fundamentally an inductive researcher who uses buildings and streetscapes—the smallest elements of a city—as his data.
Vergara’s relentless efforts to document urban transformation led him to discover a parallel process to urban decline: urban resilience. And so he captured urban murals that appeared and disappeared on the blank slates of brick and stucco walls. He found urban residents who reclaimed vacant lots for religious shrines and adapted commercially unviable storefronts for places of worship. He looked with fascination into the ways that homeowners and shopkeepers modernized facades by stripping away old ornaments, or using the most inexpensive material available—house paint—to adorn and reinvent old buildings. At a time when most observers argued that American cities were in terminal decline, Vergara discovered a process of creative destruction at work, a process of urban ruination and reimagination that played out simultaneously.
Vergara’s newest book, Detroit Is No Dry Bones, powerfully documents the transformation of Detroit over the last several decades, offering an unflinching portrayal of a city gutted by decades of anti-urban public policies, intense racial segregation, and heartlessly mobile capital. Vergara’s approach is a reminder of the power of looking at small things—a fence, a broken window, a graffiti-strewn brick wall, a lawn ornament—to illustrate what might otherwise be impersonal processes and grand social forces. But Vergara’s keen eye also sees what cannot simply be reduced to urban decay. A raggedy lot becomes a lush garden, a blank wall becomes a canvas for an unknown artist, a pile of tires and a piece of wood become an impromptu bench at a bus stop. Vergara’s Detroit is not simply an acropolis, it is a place of rebirth and reinvention.
Thomas Sugrue: A journalist, Mark Binelli, wrote a book on Detroit a few years ago, and he recounts meeting some German tourists outside of one of Detroit’s ruins, the Packard Plant. And one looked up and said: “I came to see the end of the world!” There is a vision of Detroit as an apocalyptic place, and this is part of the romance of the city.
I want to begin by asking you about your decision to focus on the built environment. You have published a few pictures, really powerful ones, that have people in them, but the vast majority of photos are of landscapes, of buildings, of objects that you’ve found in your sojourn through the city. So why the emphasis on things?
Camilo José Vergara: People often approach me as I photograph, and when I engage them in conversations about their immediate surroundings, I sometimes take their portrait. But photographs that focus on people, even if they include the surroundings, tell us little about the neighborhood. Pictures of buildings and streetscapes taken over time, observed together with additional images of the area, help me to formulate questions to ask people familiar with the place. And people come into my work through frequent quotations from them in the texts that accompany my photos. Documenting poor neighborhoods takes decades and may cover cycles of deterioration, abandonment, demolition, and replacement. If I were to focus on the inhabitants, a different kind of documentation would result.
For me, ghetto neighborhoods inevitably reflect people’s lives and aspirations. I photograph the built environment to discover stories that help me to understand the impact of change on people. Helping to shape the selection of things to photograph are my use of research databases, including Google and the US Census. I read the local news and watch related video segments, in addition to consulting my own interviews. Sometimes I find phone numbers on signs, and I use those to call and talk to the people I reach. So, I would say that the human element remains pretty strong, even in photos that do not actually include people.
TS: Some would call you a sociologist with a camera, but others have criticized you as being a ruins pornographer, someone who is mostly interested in the aesthetic side of the city. Over the course of the now 25-plus years that you’ve been walking around Detroit and other major cities with a camera, how do you think about your relationship to the camera and the city’s space in your work?
CJV: In their enormous size and grandeur, Detroit’s ruins—urban phenomena not to be seen again—made a tremendous impression on me. With their awesome presence, the city’s skeletons also attracted the media and the first wave of artists and entrepreneurs. Landmarks such as the Michigan Central Depot, the old Packard plant, and assorted abandoned skyscrapers made Motor City unique, a world capital of ruins. I cannot deny the aesthetic attraction. But my goal has always been primarily to answer the question, “what happens next”; that is, to track their evolution.
“Let the future begin,” proclaimed Mayor Dennis Archer in 1998 at the demolition of Hudson’s, the second largest department store in the United States. Against any aesthetic attraction to ruins is the majority view of them as unsightly and worthless, a weight hanging over the city that discourages investors and makes progress impossible.
The decay of buildings is a stigma. And that has led to what I consider an absurd accusation, that people who admire the grandeur of ruins are pornographers, that the photography of decay is obscene, that it is socially irresponsible insofar as it implies that city officials are to blame and that its residents are hopeless. My view is that derelict structures have a history, feed the imagination, and, as in the case of the Michigan Central Depot, they have spearheaded the development of their surroundings and thus create employment.
TS: In many of the places you visit, the future is entirely unclear. When you look at a photograph from 1991 and the same place again in 2003 or 2012 or 2016, and you see dramatic transformation, it doesn’t necessarily go in the direction that one might have anticipated on a first visit. You’re a historian maybe as much as a sociologist or an artist.
CJV: The lack of predictability of American cities makes them dramatic. Insofar as I show what actually happens through time, I become a visual historian.
When I return to cities, it’s in answer to their call. I feel compelled to find out what has happened since my last visit. In the case of Detroit, it is not important for my observations to be useful to those engaged in trying to rebuild the city. I want to be a witness to the survival of its segregated neighborhoods, to record the visual culture developing in them, as well as the commentary posted online and on the city’s walls by people from all over the world attracted by Detroit’s allure.
TS: One of the things that I find really compelling about a lot of these photographs is how you focus on the ways that people make meaning of these places, that these aren’t just dry bones or empty buildings or banal commercial landscapes.
CJV: One way in which I see people making and changing the meaning of these places is through hand-painted advertisements on everyday, humble establishments such as barbershops, car washes, restaurants, and storefront churches.
I also photograph folk-art depictions of locally celebrated figures, as well as symbols of the city and representations of black history. Rosa Parks, Coleman Young, President Obama, and the Renaissance Center are popular images in Detroit’s segregated neighborhoods. I am curious to see the color of the skin in murals that depict Christ, angels, and Snow White. And I search for the constantly renewing flow of ghetto-specific billboards erected by the government, foundations, and religious organizations. These enjoin parents to spend time with their children to help them gain self-esteem; to implore witnesses to come forth and report murders to the police; to seek salvation; to rail against abortion.
White visitors take advantage of Detroit’s many available walls to paint and tag. Some are looking for their art be recognized in this way. I photograph their work and observe the reactions of locals, many of whom feel that theirs is an African American city and should have imagery and religious messages that give pride and hope to the black majority. They resent what they regard as narcissistic tags by people searching for individual recognition on city walls.
TS: I’m interested in a tension that came up in a lot of your later photographs between the gentrifying artists, the muralists, the traveling graffiti artists who come to Detroit from all over the United States and the world, and the local folks who have produced murals on the city’s buildings for a long time.
CJV: Until recently Detroit was regarded as a blank slate; there was room for everybody with a can of spray paint to create. There were main streets available that went for eight miles or longer with thousands of vacant storefronts that artists could paint on. Now, though, the police arrest artists working without a permit and the city is erasing existing graffiti with gray or blue paint.
Celebrities such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey have worked in Detroit. There is resentment as attention is focused on new creations by such internet-savvy artists coming from outside. There is no link between the well-connected newcomers and the isolated local sign painters. Neighborhood artists lack the skills necessary to publicize their work; they often lack an email account and their phones are frequently disconnected. White artists are often represented by galleries, and are able to apply and receive foundation grants.
Local sign painters and commercial artists with a dwindling neighborhood market see their work diminish as handmade signs are replaced by vinyl signs made inexpensively by commercial printers.
What was surprising to me was that black nationalists are not a force determining what belongs on Detroit’s walls anymore. I simply do not see outward signs of their presence.
TS: What struck you about the iconography of these different local muralists?
CJV: It seems that what we’re seeing in these murals, in part, is the do-it-yourself aesthetic. But in the case of African American murals, it’s do-it-yourself because you’ve been left with little, except for perhaps cans of paint and the blank slate. But here, you’ve got these outsiders coming in, believing that they can reinvent the city, reinvent themselves, maybe reinvent the world by imposing an aesthetic vision on Detroit’s landscape.
For four decades the majority of Detroit’s population has been African American. The identity of segregated black communities is visually expressed in murals, commercial signs, and adaptations of existing buildings and objects. There are religious murals in which Christ, the apostles, and the angels are black. Representations of African American history show pyramids, civil rights figures, the city’s leaders and their achievements. A reversal of the established order is evident in the size of the figures; for instance, one in an East Side check-cashing establishment depicts a tiny Henry Ford driving one of his early cars under the gaze of a huge portrait of Mayor Coleman Young above. In “The History of Detroit” series of murals by Sylvia Burke, buildings such as the Stimson Funeral Home and the Motown Museum seem to take precedence over the old GM headquarters and the landmark Fisher building.
Searching for recognition, white suburban youngsters come to Detroit to tag and paint murals along the busiest city avenues such as Gratiot, Michigan, and Grand River. In addition, groups of suburban volunteers under the sponsorship of churches come from states like Indiana or Illinois to board up vacant houses and to paint happy Christian messages on their façades. Their messages of cheer, popular in Brightmoor [a working-class neighborhood on Detroit’s West Side], are illustrated with depictions of flowers, trees, stars, gumball machines and ice cream, things that no one could find objectionable.
Another type of imagery consists of celebrations of the white Motor City of the 1920s, mostly found in the city’s gentrifying 7.2 square miles. These are common in pop-up stores downtown and in bars and restaurants favored by Caucasians. In Detroit, there is great admiration for the city when it was an economic powerhouse, the place where the future was once being invented.
TS: You’ve been visiting Detroit now for more than a quarter century. What do you think is the future direction of the city? After all, the city lost 25 percent of its population, mostly in outlying neighborhoods, between 2000 and 2010. I’m asking you to look into your crystal ball and predict the future—or maybe just reflect on the current moment, if you’re unwilling to look into your crystal ball.
CJV: Well, I think there are some really interesting developments going on. The larger Detroit metro area, one of the richest areas in the United States, now acknowledges the city and wants to help. In 2015 I barely missed 30,000 Lutherans who came from all over the country to beautify the neighborhoods, pick up the garbage, and “do the work of God” in the Motor City. Such large numbers of people coming to help would have been unthinkable in the angry and divided city of a quarter-century ago.
No Trump Hotel or Intel chip factory is scheduled to be built in the city. No Kardashian, Kennedy, or Beyoncé is likely to move to Motor City. Detroit’s neighborhoods continue to lose jobs and to fade away, and anyone who can move out of those places does so. The city’s tragedy is that, with all that we know and with all the resources available, there seems to be no way to improve the living conditions of the majority of the population residing in areas of concentrated poverty. A dual city continues to develop, with a booming 7.2 square miles where a growing and educated population is surrounded by 131 declining square miles populated by poor African Americans, who keep adapting and surviving amidst decaying buildings and empty lots. This situation is likely to get worse.
Camilo José Vergara’s website contains additional images of Detroit, as well as many other cities across the country.