Saturday, May 30, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - Camilo Jose Vergara

Today, I ventured over to the New-York Historical Society, a museum next door to the American Museum of Natural History. It is dedicated to history and story telling, particularly those stories that involve New York City. There is a beautiful photography exhibit by Camilo Jose Vergara currently on display, Harlem in Transition, 1970 - 2009. The exhibit depicts Vergara's 4 decades of photographing Harlem. He began taking pictures on his lunch breaks from a large advertising agency located on Park Avenue. He often went back to visit the same sites over 40 years to document the change and transformation, and plenty of change has taken place in that neighborhood.

The roller coaster ride of Harlem is very apparent in the collection. From beautiful buildings, dilapidated, and rebuilt even beyond their original splendor to the images of people who arrived in the neighborhood and left one way or another, it is a story of rising, falling, and rising again. It covers places of worship and commerce, the art and politics, the people and addresses that are distinctly Harlem. It makes no apologies or excuses, nor does it forgive or forget. It simply and honestly tells the story of Harlem.

What struck me most about the photographs is the color that radiates from them. There's a photo that depicts the urban gardening that used to be in Harlem and another showing the graffiti used to warn residents of the harm drugs and drug dealing bring into the neighborhood. There are photos of statues of prominent black Americans that instill pride and inspire everyone who walks by them. There are birds-eye views of the grand boulevards and photos of life on the streets as if we are seeing the scenes at ground level.

This exhibit takes us north from the Historical Society into that neighborhood, that mindset. It shows us the struggles and triumphs of Harlem residents, past and present. Vergara says of this collection, "This urban documentation project breaks with the ways historians, planners and other scholars traditionally approach urban space. My method of documentation is based on presenting sequences and networks of images to tell how Harlem evolved and what it gained and lost in the process. The premise behind all the work that I do is that 100 pictures are one hundred times more powerful than one picture. The more you track something, the deeper and more eloquently it speaks."

And eloquence is the best descriptor of this exhibit and the proud people who share its story. It's on view now through July 12, 2009 at the New-York Historical Society. To see more of Vargara's work, visit his website:

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