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Storefront Churches: Photographs by Camilo José Vergara

June 20, 2009 - November 29, 2009

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1855 3rd St., N. Richmond, California, 2004.
Camilo José Vergara
Camilo José Vergara has been compelled to document America's inner cities for nearly forty years. He photographs the landscape of urban poverty, choosing to capture the subject matter head on and in an even light. Trained as a sociologist, his work melds photography with oral history and reveals realities unnoticed by many. 

In the early 1970s, Vergara was struck by the number and variety of houses of worship he encountered—both in buildings originally designed for other purposes, and in abandoned traditional churches. He recalls, "I quickly understood churches to be crucial to my project, and a separate study of them began to develop." Intrigued by Christ's ethnicity or color at a particular church, Vergara asked church elders about His representation; curious about the proper setting for worship, he queried pastors about their building plans; surprised by parishioners "drunk in the spirit," he followed them. 

Vergara and his camera have been an eye witness to worship in some of the nation's most distressed communities, including areas of Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York.  "In poor neighborhoods, houses of worship are plentiful and each has a unique identity. But certain phenomena recur. For example, the churches speak to resilience, for often they are the last survivors on an old commercial block. Former stores (storefront churches) are ideal structures in which to start houses of worship: they are cheap to buy or rent; they have adequate floor space; and they are located near parking lots. The same is true of churches in former garages, factories, warehouses, domestic dwellings, or public institutions.  Although traces of a building's secular origins often endure, its religious purpose is proclaimed through the addition of symbols and architectural motifs associated with traditional sanctuaries to the façade and interior." Vergara continues to survey these transformed structures and the conditions, beliefs, and practices that shape them.

Vergara's long-standing research benefited greatly after he was named a 2002 MacArthur Fellow. The award enabled him to develop a manuscript published by Rutgers University Press in 2005 as How the Other Half Worships. This exhibition is drawn from his recent work and that study.

"By returning many times over the past thirty years to document the same buildings, I was able to show how ordinary structures assume, modify, and shed a religious character, how traditional churches—if they fail to adapt to new congregations—are demolished, and how new buildings are designed and built from the ground up as churches. I explore how religious leaders create, over time, an environment that inspires devotion, and I seek the reasons that dictate their choices of objects, texts, and imagery."

Vergara's photographs of inner city churches, their members, and their leaders, as well as the art and objects found in them, are indispensible to understanding religion in America today.