Published September 07, 2011
Camilo Jose Vergara started photographing the World Trade Center site when he moved to New York in 1970, and hasn't stopped since.
"In the beginning, I was not specifically trying to take pictures of the towers," Vergara said. "I was trying to take pictures of New York. But the towers showed up. They were sort of uninvited."
The native of Chile has spent the past 41 years traveling all over New York City, and across the Hudson River in New Jersey, snapping pictures of Lower Manhattan.
"Wherever I went, of course, the towers came and followed me," said Vergara.
The photographs are the subject of an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York called "The Twin Towers and The City."
"When we began discussing the exhibition for September 11th’s tenth anniversary, we decided that we wanted to create an exhibition that would celebrate the life of the Twin Towers and their place in the city," says Sean Corcoran, the exhibit's curator.
Vergara photographed the towers everywhere they popped up. In Brooklyn, Queens, Jersey City, Hoboken and more. Vegara shows the towers punctuating the skyline behind junkyards, homeless people and housing projects, highlighting the city's economic struggles of the 1970's.
"I was trying to show that contrast between the poverty and the hubris, you know the pride, that spirit, that will become bigger than anything else," said Vergara. "Those were sort of the high times of the war of Vietnam. The towers were going up as a symbol of American power."
Vergara returned to the same vantage points over and over again, in the 80's and 90's, shooting thousands of feet of Kodachrome 64 film, showing the ever present towers looming large over an ever-changing city. Burning tires make way for parking lots in Jersey City. Gas tanks disappear from Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Dilapidated buildings become luxury condos on the East River waterfront. But, the Twin Towers look the same in every frame.
"There's a story, it's of transience and resilience." The city's ultimate show of resilience came the day the towers stopped following him.
"I felt I had to go there," said Vergara recounting the events of September 11th, 2001.
"I got as far as Chambers Street," he said, "I would have gone closer, but the security people from the courthouses were out there with guns and they said 'Look if you cross here or take a picture, we'll break your camera right away.' So, I walked and made my way to the Manhattan Bridge where I was able to take some of the pictures."
The Twin Towers gone, Vergara found himself photographing the emptiness they left behind.
"The whole skyline had lost some basic element. Without the towers, there were beautiful skyscrapers, still a beautiful skyline, but it didn't have the grandeur."
Now that the Port Authority is building One World Trade Center at the rate of one floor per week, Vergara's lens is once again focusing on construction, and the changing skyline, just like it did during the building of the Twin Towers in the early 70's.
But Vergara isn't sure if the new building, formerly known as "The Freedom Tower," is the right fit.
"It's kind of unsettling coming up. It's so big, it's so massive," said Vergara. "Even though the Trade Center was such an impressive and large thing, somehow it fit with everything," Vergara said looking at an old photograph of the Twin Towers and then pointing to a recent picture of the unfinished new tower, "I don't know if that's going to work the same way."
The Twin Towers eventually grew on Vergara. He admits the new World Trade Center could too.
"I'm looking forward to being amazed," he said.
Vergara's exhibit is on display at the Museum of the City of New York through December 4th.