“I have always been interested in the things that fail,” said photographer Camilo José Vergara.
With a keen eye for spaces and an obsession for photographing cities, Vergara displays rawness and realism about Detroit in his visual book “Detroit is No Dry Bones: The Eternal City of the Industrial Age.”
No, it wouldn’t make much sense to classify Detroit as a “failed” city –– a space that is absorbed in urban art, culture and drive, Detroit is to be placed in its own category. But in retrospect, Detroit’s urban structures and city population have significantly decreased within the past 50 years, and Vergara has been able to exemplify this declination through his photos.
The Chilean-born photographer began taking photos at a young age, and studied sociology at Notre Dame and Columbia University. The artist claimed that he “did not have large ghettos” where he lived, and that is what drew him to the rougher parts of Camden, Chicago, New York and Detroit.
Vergara discussed how he would hear rumors and stories where things “could not get worse.” As someone who was always been interested in neighborhood and towns, and by continuously revisiting the Detroit, Vergara was eager to find what the next steps were for the city.
What makes Vergara unique among many is his concept of revisiting the same locations over and over again over a long period of time.
His book begins with an introduction discussing his passions and reasons for photography, and specifically, photographing the Motor City. Then, the very first two pages after the intro, the reader sees two drastically different photos taken from the exact same vantage point (“south from the roof of the former Carlton Plaza Hotel”).
One of these photos, flourished with color, business and community, was taken in 1998; the second, showing the same places, bleak and abandoned, was taken in 2003. Below is a photo featured in the book, taken from a similar vantage point to the two photos from the intro, but this one was taken in 1991.
Even in those five years, Vergara understood that spaces are “used for different people and purposes,” including old warehouses, vacant houses and over-vegetated streets and walkways.
“There are a lot of stories that are completely un-protectable,” Vergara emphasized when describing these photographs. The story of a building changes as its function does: Warehouses once meant for manufacturing car parts are now used as a space for adolescent paintball fights. More of these hidden stories were explored when Vergara hit the suburbs.
Dichotomic and heavy, Vergara showed me a photo of two neighboring suburban houses. Although feet apart from one another, they look as though they are from two different worlds.
Vergara mentioned the extent to which the abandoned house on the left is disheveled, where all that is left is a wide-open back yard, pest infestation, broken windows and a trashcan. Meanwhile, the viewer sees the house directly to the right, a well-kept and tidy space clearly occupied by humans.
“I became sensitive to the small things,” Vergara said. This among many of his photos clearly focuses on the urban-decay of the city and the suburbs. “Sometimes the neighbor will clean up the front yard … If your neighbor looks bad, you look bad.”
In the idea of abandoned houses, two photos of Vergara’s triptychs show the same house titled “The Edmund,” which was built in 1885.
With the overgrowing bushes and shattered roof, the house almost looks apocalyptic. Vergara mentioned the paradox between the Detroit houses that are vacant and the houses that are still being lived in, both “giving the feeling that they are in battle, fighting for survival.”
Both when observing these locations in person and through his photos, Vergara said that people tend to ask: “How did this happen?” A question looming in the air, it is ineffable to say what is the cause for these parts of cities, like Detroit, to fall out of existence.
“People in the future, I believe, will want to know about the evolution of postindustrial Detroit in terms of the visual forms of everyday life,” Vergara wrote in the introduction of his book. “But there are disincentives to probing this subject. Scholars interested in Detroit and other cities undergoing depopulation, disinvestment, and dereliction are eager to find ways to return them to prosperity—usually, however, at the cost of ignoring the physical adaptations and new beginnings made by locals in their struggle to survive.”
He captures more than just bird-eye views of cities and eerie abandoned house photos. He incorporates sculptures, landmarks, objects and most importantly, the people of Detroit.
What Vergara possesses which is even more insightful than his photos are his precious stories and his patient perseverance to reveal to the world the odd and beautiful truth that is Detroit.