CAMILO JOSE VERGARA: I'm Camilo José Vergara. I'm here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum to speak about my work.
I was not trained as a photographer. I wanted to write poetry. Then my professor at Notre Dame said, "Hey, you aren't very good as a poet, but maybe you should try as a photographer. I can lend you money to buy a camera. They have a Pentax, a used Pentax, for sale at the camera shop in South Bend, Indiana." I got that and I began using it. First, I used black and white, but then I thought why not color?
I became interested in Harlem first of all because I lived very close to Harlem. It was a matter of three blocks or four blocks and I was in Harlem. Secondly, it's because it has a tremendous resonance because of all the people that are there and because of its presence, of what it meant in American culture, and certainly in African-American culture, and the world. I wanted to know the places that so many people were talking about and then follow them. I mean, what happens? It's always that sort of thing that interests me.
I was very impressed by the buildings and what they were because they were big, and they looked like they had seen better times. Those better times interested me, you know? You see signs of wealth, you see decoration, you see marble and different things. Then you see the reflection, you see a wild dog coming out of that marble stairs or something, and that looked to me as being extremely, you know, contrasting.
My interest in the architecture then was first to get the building as a whole before it disappeared. But then, of course, I went home and I said, "What's going to happen to that building tomorrow, or the day after, or the next week?" So get back on the subway, and get back to that place, and take the same picture. That's how this series developed.
I selected 65 East 125th Street because there is a Metro North Station that is a block away from there, and I used to take that train very often. I would walk by that little location, and it had such an uncanny presence. Like when I first saw it, and I said, "What is this building doing here?" It's like you're looking at a survivor, and I think you can go back to probably by now, there is nothing left of the original building. It was all demolished and then something else was built there.
I don't know if I'm going to be around to see what's going to be next, but it seems to me that this particular series has gotten enough attention that it's going to be followed so that 10 years from now, or 30 years from now, and maybe hopefully a hundred years from now, we'll know what's happening there. It'll become, it's sort of one of those rare cases when a somewhat ordinary place in a kind of ordinary neighborhood gains that kind of prominence.
Camilo José Vergara captured, through photography, over 40 years of changes in the urban landscape of 65 East 125th Street in Harlem. Through these photographs, he tells the story of change, growth, and life in Harlem.
Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW)
America’s urban streets have long inspired documentary photographers. After World War II, populations shifted from the city to the suburbs and newly built highways cut through thriving neighborhoods, leaving isolated pockets within major urban centers.