Urban Portraiture: The Persona of Place in the Work of Camilo José Vergara

Categories: Articles

by chrysanthe B. broikos

Camilo José Vergara has been photographing the landscape of urban poverty for nearly 40 years. The landscape he depicts is often forlorn: dotted with abandoned lots, desolate streets, and dilapidated buildings. He captures his subjects straight on and in even light, usually without acute angles, deep shadows, or contrasting forms.

Considering both the subject and style of Vergara’s work, it is not surprising that he is often described as a documentary photographer. Indeed, he is undoubtedly one of the nation’s foremost urban documentarians. In some artistic contexts the term “documentary,” however, can imply a deficiency in interpretative rigor or presume both “snapshot” quality and methodology. In Vergara’s case, nothing could be further from the truth.

This essay introduces a parallel reading—discussing Vergara’s photography as a form of portraiture—to broaden the understanding of his process and motivations. The article draws on the imagery and writing in Vergara’s most recent book, How the Other Half Worships (Rutgers University Press, 2005)—an exploration of Christian houses of worship in the inner city and the conditions, beliefs, and practices that shape them—and Storefront Churches: Photographs by Camilo José Vergara, a 2009 National Building Museum exhibition drawn from that study.

Integrating Portraiture and Photojournalism

A portrait is understood to be a “likeness.” The artist is inherently afforded a modicum of latitude for interpretation or in recognition of the inherent limitations of a representational medium. The subject, on some level, is presumed to be a participant. So there is active engagement between the two, an exchange of some sort, which is frequently reflected in the gaze of the subject toward the artist—and viewer. The subject’s face and its expression are the focus of the work, though the setting, vantage point, pose, lighting, clothing, and accessories (or props) can all have tremendous bearing on the overall impression. Irrespective of who has commissioned the work, and for what specific purpose, the artist seeks to convey both the subject’s physical appearance and his or her persona.

Vergara’s photographs seek a similar end, namely to capture both the physical attributes of a building or a place, and to convey its “persona”—a sense of that place—meaning how it is used and cared for, or neglected, by people. It is this “true life” aspect of his work that makes Vergara both a portraitist and documentarian, and distinguishes his work from more traditional architectural photography, which focuses on appearance, form, and tectonics.

Architectural photographers, who are typically hired by the architect of a building, are sensitive to conveying the architect’s vision for the structure and its potential representational qualities. People are rarely evident in such images, except to help provide a sense of scale, as quite often the buildings are not yet occupied. Drama is highly desirable and to achieve maximum impact the photographer may focus on a single feature or detail; position himself or herself at an acute or oblique angle from the main façade (or any façade); shoot from a vantage point high above or below; emphasize the surrounding landscape or peripheral buildings; capture the subject at night, lit from inside and out; highlight the building’s reflection; “accessorize” the spaces; or play with light to create shadows or hot spots. By and large, these compositional tools, or tricks of the trade (along with others), are an exception in Vergara’s work.

Vergara’s brand of urban portraiture requires a toolkit nonetheless, but one more aligned with that of a photojournalist than that of an architectural photographer. Mobility and flexibility are high priorities, so Vergara uses a relatively lightweight and easily portable 35mm single-lens-reflex camera. That equipment also has the advantage of being small and rather inconspicuous, much more so than tripod-dependent medium- or large-format cameras. When Vergara needs to stand in the middle of the street—or on top of his rental car—to get a desired view, ease of use is paramount. These factors are also important to a photographer who has had to keep one eye open for aggressive residents and gang members upon whose turf he was treading, as well as inquisitive police officers. Occasionally, quick getaways have been a necessity.

More typically, Vergara’s toolkit relies on his street sense and smarts to disarm and deflect those suspicious of his motives and his work. In the book he explains, “Often I had to choose between taking notes or photographing; photography usually took precedence.” His study of religion in the inner city overlaid a secondary set of issues. Some pastors asked him for a donation to their church, several asked him to write their biographies, one proposed starting a business together, and many asked about the condition of his soul. He was asked more than once to proclaim Christ as his Savior.

Concentrating on the Streetscape

Beginning in 1977, the year he received his master’s degree in sociology from Columbia University, Vergara began developing what has become his modus operandi. He decided to return, when possible, to certain cities and their ghettos to photograph and re-photograph various blocks, intersections, and alleys. “Before every field trip I examined the photographs I had already taken, reviewed notes I had collected in the city, and used them as a guide to select themes that needed to be further expanded.” This description from the introduction to How The Other Half Worships is applicable to his work in general. Likewise, reflections in the postscript to the book are indicative of his thorough and investigative approach, “I attended services in basements and on the second floor of former factories, places I was able to find only by the noise of rattles and the preaching and the energetic singing that came from inside. I drove nights through desolate streets looking for houses of worship with their lights on.” His photography is directed, not driven by happenstance, and the results are poignant.

His approach was largely born of experience and necessity. Harlem’s decline after the 1964 and ’68 riots was precipitous, and as burned-out blocks in New York began disappearing, Vergara recognized that all buildings are potential ruins, and that a generation was, in fact, growing up in “ruined” neighborhoods across the country. In 1970, Vergara had set out to document the life and living conditions of the nation’s urban poor; by the end of the decade he realized that by concentrating on the streetscape, he could chronicle the evolution of neighborhoods and communities.

His technique has allowed him to accomplish three objectives with many of his images. First, he is recording a place in time. In this case, the name of a church (and its denomination), its location, and all its physical trappings (condition, materials, colors, symbolism and iconography, security features), and often information about the worship services, and the name of the pastor. Part of this record usually includes a hint of the building’s neighbors, a small window to life on that street or community. Secondly, he is recording any changes in the life of the church that have a physical manifestation. In contrast to more well established churches, the exteriors of small storefronts tend to change fairly frequently, and sometimes quite dramatically. Changes in church leadership, the make-up of the congregation, or the fortunes of the neighborhood are likely to have visible consequences for the church. A relatively low-cost expense such as repainting, for example, is frequently the bellwether of more substantive developments in the life of the congregation. Thirdly, he is recording physical changes in the immediate neighborhood around the church. The changes around the church can be far more drastic and substantive than those that occur to the structure. Vergara has in fact concluded that these “churches speak to resilience, for often they are the last survivors on an old commercial block.” This forcefully illuminates how buildings can carry memories of the past. It would take decades, however, for the impact of time-lapse sequencing to reach its full potential in Vergara’s work.

Vergara speaks with authority when describing the evolution of inner-city churches over the past decades. His portfolio includes thousands of churches in more than 20 cities. In the book’s chapter on architecture and design, for example, Vergara felt compelled to affirm categorically that “the building does matter,” because the pastors he interviewed frequently denied the importance of the physical structure of the church itself. He has observed, “The pattern over time is for churches to become sober and established. The more a building resembles a traditional church, the less is the incentive to change it, for the building already conveys the image of religion and respectability the congregation desires.” What others might assert, or anecdotally conclude, Vergara can refute or document unequivocally.

Urban Portraits

Many of the photographs chosen for Storefront Churches are easy to read as urban portraiture: they are unpopulated and showcase a building’s front façade head on, sometimes even with symmetry reminiscent of the human face. Others may be a bit more difficult to see as portraits because they are filled with people either oblivious or indifferent to the camera. For this reason, we might think of them as candid images, for it is clear the people are not posing for Vergara. Even in these images, however, the building is laid bare; the people are almost incidental. So while they are candid photographs of the individuals, they hardly seem to catch the building unawares.

There are a few images one might even describe as “nudes,” each for a different reason. One is a 2004 image of Triumph, The Church and Kingdom of God in Christ on 25th Street in Gary, Indiana. Vergara has called it “a cold little fortress.” The exterior is composed entirely of gray cinder blocks and three windows on the second floor are covered with plywood. From this vantage point, there are only three signs of life: an exterior light fixture, the sign with the name of the church, and a small window. It seems plausible that the building might be unfinished, and so is literally naked, or undressed. But the viewer can’t quite tell, so there is something unsettling about it. The other building, Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius in Detroit, sits in ruins. “She” is quite literally exposed, but does not seem the least bit embarrassed, almost as if she were a quite elderly woman, long past her prime. In this 2003 image, hints of her former beauty and glory are all but gone. What is quite clear is that all these photographs are composed portraits—almost as if Vergara recognizes each church as a long lost friend. That is his gift. Each time he visits, Vergara is compelled to capture the persona of the place again, to keep his memory of it fresh and alive. That is how he has learned to capture the personality of poverty. He is not commissioned to photograph individual buildings, and he does not record a neighborhood block by block, storefront by storefront. Rather, buildings have a way of auditioning for him. Something about the building, its congregants, or its circumstance catches his eye. Once it does, he is drawn to return.

What catches his trained eye? What is he looking for? One answer is authenticity. “Why am I looking for authenticity in structures that are often adapted for religious uses, express contradictory meanings, use ‘fake’ and found materials, and are often the result of collective efforts? Through its physical features, a building affirms its presence as the house of God, as something permanent, a home for the religious life, a place to articulate beliefs, and a symbol of the identity of the pastor and congregation. The ‘fake’ materials may be the cheapest available means to portray the church’s mission. It is ironic that the use of artificial materials, along with nonprofessional execution of renovation or construction, can add individuality and authenticity to houses of worship.” Perhaps more than anyone in this country, Vergara understands that “In poor neighborhoods, houses of worship are plentiful and each, of necessity has a unique identity.”

Buildings are not scenographic wallpaper or backdrops for life, but primary actors on the stage that can speak volumes—and solicit memories. Vergara has heard them speaking for and about the people who lived in and around them. And for the past 30 years he has been determined to capture those voices—and to let us hear them speak. In a sense, he has been on a mission to open the eyes of the “better half” to the life of the poor. What better way to do this than through urban portraiture? Vergara’s style may be documentary, but his method and means are personal.

Chrysanthe Broikos is an architectural historian and curator at the National Building Museum. She and Camilo José Vergara co-curated Storefront Churches and previously worked together in 1998 when the Museum presented El Nuevo Mundo: The Landscape of Latino Los Angeles.