The World Trade Center has been part of Camilo José Vergara‘s life since 1970. That was the year the Chilean-born photographer moved to New York, and the year he began what has grown into a 51-year commitment to photographing the site, from the construction of the twin 110-story towers in the early ’70s to their destruction on September 11, 2001, to its memorialization and gradual redevelopment.
Vergara’s 51 years of photographs are the subject of a new exhibition now on display at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The photos track the turbulent life of the World Trade Center through Vergara’s trademark time-sequence photography technique, which he uses to document, over long periods of time, the changing faces of cities like Gary, Indiana, Newark, Chicago, and Los Angeles. He has been awarded the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant and the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama.
Living in New York since 1970, the World Trade Center has become one of his most revisited sites. At first, though, it was just a curiosity. “I always had a sense of amazement at what it was,” says Vergara. “It was all over the news. This gigantic building that was going to be built in New York.”
A recent graduate of Notre Dame University, Vergara had relocated to New York in 1970 for a master’s degree in sociology at Columbia University just as the twin towers were rising. The buildings became an alluring, if controversial, subject to shoot. Vergara says that in the face of the city’s inequality at the time, as now, he was critical of these extra tall representations of the power of capitalism. “The other thing was that the buildings were not beautiful by any means. The lack of aesthetic beauty in those buildings was spared by the fact that they were twins. That added a lot to their presence even though they were so simple,” he says.
Their immense height proved irresistible. “I grew up in a little town, and the biggest building there was three stories high. I used to go to Santiago, which was the biggest city, and look up and count the stories,” he says, getting up to 13, maybe 14. “I remember my mother telling me don’t look up because people are going to think you’re a hick.”
In New York, as the towers completed construction in 1973, Vergara found himself looking at the World Trade Center towers both on purpose and on accident. His work had begun to focus on the poor neighborhoods of urban America, leading him into many of the public housing complexes across New York. “I was going to the housing projects, maybe the 15th story, the 20th story, and photographing from there, and the towers would show up in all of these pictures I took,” he says.
By the late ’70s, he began using his time sequence technique, returning regularly to sites and taking photos from the same locations. These shoots high atop the city’s public housing complexes proved to be ideal vantages to track the evolution of the skyline and the buildings around the twin towers.
“It was a skyline that had a lot of spaces in between the buildings. And I loved those spaces,” Vergara says. “They stayed until maybe the late ’70s, early ’80s. And then those spaces started to fill up.”
Then, in September 2001, the skyline changed dramatically. “I heard the news that one plane had hit the building, waited a bit, then took the subway,” says Vergara. “It took me only to 42nd Street, so I had to walk all the way there.”
It was a surreal journey. “There were all these people on Seventh Avenue that had extension cords and televisions on the hood of the car and they were watching on television what the newscasters were saying and at the same time looking at the real thing,” he says.
By the time Vergara got into Lower Manhattan, much of the neighborhood was being cordoned off. Guards from City Hall and nearby courthouses were turning people away, and screening for suspicious activity. “They took the role of being the defenders of America against terrorists, and any person coming down was a potential terrorist,” Vergara says. “What they told me is, ‘You can’t go south because we’ll break your camera.’”
He crossed over to Brooklyn and returned to one of his regular shooting locations, looking across the East River, over the Brooklyn Bridge and onto a Lower Manhattan engulfed by the smoke and dust of the fallen towers.
In the years that followed, Vergara has closely tracked the redevelopment of the area, returning to familiar perches and corners nearby and far away to track the towers that have risen around the site of the former twin towers. This evolution offers a more complex understanding, not just as the site of a devastating and traumatic event, but as “a really rich story of a very significant American place,” he says. “I’m not saying it’s more important than the other story [of the attacks], but it is important. It tells things about New York and about the country.”
Over more than half a century, this particular photographic subject has seen its importance and significance multiply, but Vergara says his approach of returning to places and tracking them over time is a way to more deeply understand both the significant and the everyday places in cities.
Watching change is a natural curiosity, he says. He remembers crossing over the Manhattan Bridge on the subway in the months following the September 11 attacks and noticing how almost every passenger would look out to where the twin towers once stood. “You would see all of the faces of the people turning and just looking in disbelief, just asking the question, ‘What’s going on, what’s happening?’” he says. “I extended that question way beyond September and October 2001 into today.”