The year is 1990. In the foreground, a man dressed in a blue work shirt and denim overalls poses amid corn and vegetables planted on a patch of junkyard between West 118th and 119th Streets and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Manhattan. A makeshift scarecrow, also in overalls, stands beside him. The man’s name is Eddie, he’s originally from Selma, Alabama, and he’s now an urban farmer. Welcome to Harlem.
But the story doesn’t end there. The photographer, Camilo José Vergara, has returned to the same location year after year to shoot more pictures. In 2008, he aimed his camera here and found, not a vegetable patch, but a crisply modern luxury apartment building. “On the exact spot where Eddie was standing, there’s a Starbucks today,” Vergara says. Welcome to the new Harlem.
For much of the past 40 years, Vergara has systematically shot thousands of pictures at some 600 locations in Harlem. His images cumulatively document the myriad transformations—both dramatic and subtle—in the physical, social and economic life of the community. The project helped earn him a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2002.
Harlem has not been Vergara’s only focus. He has shot extensively in distressed areas of Camden, New Jersey, and Richmond, California, as well as in Detroit, Los Angeles and more than a dozen other cities. More than 1700 of his photographs are housed on a labyrinthine interactive Web site called Invincible Cities , which he hopes to develop into what he calls “The Visual Encyclopedia of the American Ghetto.” A modest yet powerful selection of his New York City work is featured in an exhibition, Harlem 1970–2009: Photographs by Camilo José Vergara, on display at the New-York Historical Society through July 9.
Harlem has long fascinated photographers. Henri Cartier-Bresson found it a rich source of the “decisive moments” he felt were the heart of the medium. Helen Levitt and Aaron Siskind found drama and beauty in Harlem’s people and surroundings; Roy DeCarava found poetry and power.
Vergara’s project is deliberately more prosaic. Rather than trying to create the perfect, captivating photograph, he piles image upon image, narrating a suite of interconnected stories with a form of time-lapse photography that spans decades.
There’s a vivid example of Vergara’s method in the Harlem exhibition, documenting the evolution—or more accurately, devolution—of a single storefront at 65 East 125th Street. A series of eight pictures (or 24, on Vergara’s web site) tracks the establishment’s progression from jaunty nightclub to discount variety store to grocery/smoke shop to Sleepy’s mattress outlet and finally, to gated, empty store with a forlorn “For Rent” sign.
“This is not a photography show in the traditional sense,” Vergara says during a stroll through the New-York Historical Society gallery. “I’m really interested in issues, what replaces what, what’s the thrust of things. Photographers don’t usually get at that—they want to show you one frozen image that you find amazing. For me, the more pictures the better.”
Vergara’s work has gradually earned him a formidable reputation. In addition to his MacArthur award and other honors, he has received two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities; his photographs of storefront churches will be exhibited at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., from June 20 to November 29; he contributes regularly to Slateom; and his eighth book, Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto , is due from the University of Chicago Press in 2010.
For all that, Vergara grumbles, he has not earned acceptance in the world of photography. His NEH grants were in the architecture category; his applications for Guggenheim Foundation grants in photography have been rejected 20 times. “If I went to the Museum of Modern Art with my pictures, they wouldn’t even look at them,” he says. “If I go to the galleries, they say your stuff doesn’t belong here.”
The problem, he feels, is that art has become all about mystification. “If artists keep things unsaid, untold, then you focus on the formal qualities of the picture, and then it becomes a work of art. The more you explain, the less it is a work of art, and people pay you less for the photograph,” he says. “But I don’t like to mystify things—I like to explain things.”
“My project is not about photography; it’s about Harlem,” he insists. “I think there is a reality out there, that if you frame it, you get at it. You may not get the whole thing, but you do get it in important ways.”
Getting it, for Vergara, involves a certain amount of detachment. There is an almost clinical quality to some of his work. He chooses not to focus excessively on images of poor people, however engaging or emotional such pictures can be, because they establish a false sense of connection between viewer and subject. “I found that images of the physical communities in which people live better reveal the choices made by residents,” he wrote in a 2005 essay.
Vergara knows about poverty first-hand. His own family background made him “a specialist in decline,” he says.
Born in 1944 in Rengo, Chile, in the shadow of the Andes, Vergara says his once-wealthy family exemplified downward mobility. “We always had less and less and less,” he says. “It got pretty bad.” Coming to the U.S. in 1965 to study at Notre Dame University only reinforced his sense of dispossession. Other kids’ parents would come to visit in station wagons, throw huge tailgate parties and get excited about a kind of football he had never seen before. “So I was a stranger, as complete a stranger as you can be,” he says. “I couldn’t even speak in my own language.”
He found himself gravitating to the poorer sections of town, and when he traveled to blue-collar Gary, Indiana, he found “paradise,” he says—“in quotation marks.” Vergara eventually came to New York City to do graduate work in sociology at Columbia University, and soon thereafter began exploring Harlem and taking pictures, an endeavor that has taken him coast-to-coast many times since, tending the ground he has staked out.
“It’s the immigrant that wants to possess the country that’s not his,” he says. Through his pictures, Vergara says, “I have these little pieces—banks, old cars, homeless shelters, people getting arrested. It’s like I am a farmer, I have all of these things. They are what has given me citizenship.”
Bringing the Wright Flyer to Life
The Wright Flyer—perhaps the most famous airplane in the world—rests in a place of honor on the second floor of the National Air and Space Museum. In 1903, with Wilbur Wright at the controls, it flew at an altitude of ten feet in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. More than a century later, museum curator Bob van der Linden watched in awe as the Flyer zoomed down the museum's upstairs hallway before diving over the balcony and soaring out of the building. "Here," he says, "is where you bite your lip and remember: this is a fantasy."
Van der Linden was getting a glimpse of an animated sequence from Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (a sequel to 2006's Night at the Museum ), in which artifacts and historical figures come to life. The movie, which opens nationwide May 22, reunites audiences with night watchman Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), who, in the new film, strikes up a romance with Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams).
"I was thrilled to see that the real Smithsonian was cooler than what it was in my head," says director Shawn Levy, whose film crew descended upon the National Mall for four days and nights in May 2008. He was especially enthralled by the gothic Castle—the Smithsonian Institution's original building, now an office complex and information center—which Levy reimagined as an evil fortress where a villainous Egyptian pharaoh (Hank Azaria) sits on a throne (Archie Bunker's chair) atop a pile of looted museum treasures.
Still, as befits a love story featuring America's most famous aviatrix, much of the action takes place at the Air and Space Museum, where curators are no strangers to movie crews—particularly documentary filmmakers, who sometimes have difficulty grasping the museum maxim look but don't touch . "We've had film crews who want to climb inside the airplanes or want to move the airplanes around," says Van der Linden. "Levy's crew did not. We were very pleased—and surprised."
The biggest surprises, though, would come a month later, after Levy and his creative team wrapped up their location filming in the nation's capital. Three thousand miles away, on a soundstage in Vancouver, Van der Linden and fellow curator Margaret Weitekamp found themselves standing within the museum's look-alike, painstakingly recreated by production designer Claude Paré. While in Washington, Paré had spent two weeks snapping some 2,000 reference photographs and taking notes that detailed everything from the objects on display to the number-coded shelving systems used by museum archivists. "I really sat down and said, ‘Oh my God, this is a huge undertaking,'" Paré says. "I was a little shaken."
When Weitekamp first visited the mock-up museum, she was greeted by a bizarre sight. "That man has a monkey on his head!" she exclaimed. The capucin monkey was a cast member playing Able—NASA's 1959 primate astronaut—and had climbed atop its handler. Paré then led the two curators on a tour of the set. "It was fascinating to see the liberties they took—pulling objects from all different parts of the museum and putting them all into one big room—and at the same time having a sense of fidelity to the museum itself," says Weitekamp. The fenestrated walls, which in the real museum expose the exhibits to sunlight, were replaced with walls designed to look like solid limestone. ("Which, actually, is a better way of making a museum, to be honest with you," says Van der Linden.) Paré and his design team even went so far as to impose 30 years' worth of simulated wear on the set's recreated brass handrails.
The two curators brought home no souvenirs, but the Institution will display one of the film's key props—the evil pharaoh's "pile of loot"—in the Castle through September. National Museum of American History curator of entertainment Dwight Blocker Bowers is both amused and horrified by the very idea of iconic artifacts—even reproductions of iconic artifacts—piled in a heap. But, like the other curators, he hopes the film will stimulate public interest in the Smithsonian and other museums. And, just possibly, he adds, "show that we have a sense of humor."
Q and A with Tony Hawk
Tony Hawk was skateboarding’s world champion for 12 years. His donation of a 1986 pro model Powell-Peralta deck with truck and wheels to the National Museum of American History launches its collection of skateboarding artifacts. Smithsonian’s Ryan Reed interviewed Hawk by e-mail.
Skateboarding has become more mainstream since you started competing in the 1980s. Do you miss the days when skateboarders were rebels? I think there are still plenty of “rebels” in skateboarding, but it is much more available and accessible to the general public now. I never wanted skating to be so underground that kids were afraid to try it.
Do you prefer the old-school boards or the newer, narrower models? I prefer the newer models because they are easier to flip and spin under your feet. The boards we rode in the 1980s weren’t intended to come off your feet.
You raise money through the Tony Hawk Foundation for skateparks in low-income areas and you hold Stand Up for Skateparks festivals. What’s your goal? We have games, auctions, music and skating demonstrations so the crowds can see firsthand the work we do, who is in charge and the kids they benefit with donations.
What are some of the benefits for young kids learning to skateboard? They learn a sense of self-confidence and self-motivation, and it stays with them into their adult lives. It also lets them realize they don’t have to participate in a team sport to be active and have camaraderie.
Which Smithsonian museum would you most like to skate in? Natural History. An Ollie [a trick that involves popping a skateboard into the air] over a dinosaur? I’m in!