Commemorating 9/II

Photographs by Camilo Jose Vergara

September 3, 2016–November 27, 2016

This series of photographs is presented in honor of those who lost their lives, those who responded and volunteered in the aftermath, and those who have labored to never forget—and rebuild—after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Taken by Camilo José Vergara over a span of more than 45 years and focused on the site of the World Trade Center, these time-lapse sequences chronicle the development of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. They are also a testament to the power of place, buildings, and our collective memory.

East, West, North, South: Four-and-a-Half Decades of the World Trade Center

An essay Camilo José Vergara

My arrival in New York City—in 1970—coincided with the construction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center (WTC). I had grown up in the Chilean town of Rengo where the tallest building was the three-story post office, El Correo. I saw the soaring towers as a symbol of a new world emerging. From up close, they simultaneously attracted and repelled me: I saw them as a place of exclusion, where the contradictions of wealth and poverty were extreme. But from afar the buildings were transformed. They became a place where ordinary people could dream that the skyline was theirs.

I first realized that this densely built corner of the planet could be a place for contemplation while I was moving across New York Bay on the Staten Island Ferry. The waters hosted traditional blue police boats and similar red coast guard vessels, pleasure boats, assorted ferries, cruise ships carrying passengers to exotic places, long barges being pulled slowly by tugboats, and helicopters circling the tourist sites. I marveled at this joint creation of nature and the human imagination.

I photographed the WTC from all the points of the compass, observing the wonderful space between the towers that seemed to narrow or widen as one moved along. Ironically, the farther one moved away from them, the simpler and more dominant the towers became. Seen from a distance, these buildings that could appear vulgar to me up close, somehow lost their materiality, becoming bluish and almost transparent.

One of my favorite spots to document the WTC was from the Brooklyn tower of the Manhattan Bridge. With a wide-angle lens, anyone can frame the Brooklyn Bridge, Lower Manhattan, and on the left, a little fragment of Brooklyn. Even the Statue of Liberty is included, just barely visible in the distance, through the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. In a quest for more unique images, I decided to come after midnight to shoot the monumental towers in darkness. Other favorite times were the short stretches at sunset and sunrise, when natural and artificial light blend.

From New Jersey, or from an array of ferry boats, I often photographed the southern tip of the island. The buildings were reflected on the water, or sometimes in winter, on ice. Clouds were reflected on their surfaces. I photographed them from high rise, public-housing projects in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. I took pictures that showed struggling neighborhoods, gritty railroad yards, and lonely vacant lots in the foreground and a fading skyline rising above.

For nearly a decade after the World Trade Center was destroyed, lower Manhattan’s early-20th century “cathedrals of industry” regained their former prominence. Four of the most notable are the Gothic-inspired Woolworth Building (at 233 Broadway); the Cities Service Building (70 Pine Street), the tallest building downtown until the completion of the World Trade Center; the Manhattan Company Building with its unmistakable bright green roof (now the Trump Building, 40 Wall Street); and the Municipal Building crowned by the statue Civic Fame (1 Centre Street). These landmark skyscrapers were suddenly exposed, but today, are being eclipsed rather than framed by the new World Trade Center.

The city moves on as the new World Trade Center Complex of super tall, glassy buildings reclaims the limelight. Opened in 2014, One World Trade Center, initially known as the Freedom Tower, now dominates. In the meantime, I continue to document the neighborhoods of New York and New Jersey and, with them, the evolving cityscape. On September 11th, you’ll find me in proximity to lower Manhattan to capture the Tribute of Light, the annual commemoration of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. On the Fourth of July, I photograph the fireworks as they burst behind this skyline. Somehow, the towers still rise from the water for me.


This exhibition is presented through the generous support of Carolyn Small Alper.